CD Review: Mary Foster Conklin’s “These Precious Days”
When one goes to a Mary Foster Conklin show, there are certain givens—intriguing repertoire, musical mastery, exquisite phrasing, wit, wisdom, and damn fine singing. All those attributes are on full display in her new (and to my mind, best) recording, These Precious Days, which she produced with her music director/pianist John Di Martino. As the celebrated host of her own radio show, A Broad Spectrum—the Ladies of Jazz, Conklin most often features women composers, lyricists, and singers. Her desire to champion the female side of jazz continues on this album while utilizing their work to illuminate the feelings, the fears, the loss, and the uncertainty of the last few years. The phrase with which she titled the recording has rarely been as resonant as in these post-COVID times.
As a devotee and scholar of jazz and popular music, she knows how to put together an honest-to-goodness album rather than just an amalgam of songs as is so often the case these days. There is a cohesive sound and intent throughout as she mines primarily contemporary material and artists to fashion her commentary on our life and times in 2023. These Precious Days takes the listener on a journey to a heightened awareness of the world today. Each song is an exquisite cameo which, when combined, create a haunting and moving and sometimes lighthearted work of art.
Di Martino has long been acknowledged as one of New York’s premiere accompanists and arrangers and he is joined by an impressive lineup of musicians all in service to the singer and her vision. Sara Caswell on violin adds a special color to the proceedings but each musician—Ed Howard on bass, Vince Cherico on drums, and Guilherme Monteiro on guitar—stands out with distinctive contributions. Conklin’s wonderfully conversational phrasing elevates the material as her smokey contralto caresses and insinuates as it soothes and excites in equal measure. With a sly wink, she opens with “Summertime” but not that one. Rather, she invites us into her world with the infectious Leonard Cohen/Sharon Robinson confection, throbbing with Howard’s bass and smoothed by Caswell’s wistful violin. The singer has a strong connection with Peggy Lee’s Mirrors album written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and she delights with two of its treasures, the acerbic, worldly-wise “Some Cats Know,” and later the haunting “A Little White Ship.” Lee’s trademark fragility and whispered, seductive intensity is replaced by Conklin’s stronger, more direct attack and it transforms the songs, making them her own as much as Lee’s. A classic pop song of the last century, recorded by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, and Richard Rodney Bennett, “Just A Little Lovin’” (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil) shows the singer’s joyful pop side at its best. Di Martino’s lilting piano is the perfect counterpoint to Caswell’s string work.
“Come in from the Rain” (Melissa Manchester, Carole Bayer Sager) is given a warm and glowing update and the singer captures its romantic pleading perfectly. Lyricist Fran Landesman is a writer near and dear to Conklin’s heart; she put together a fantastic tribute show highlighting both her songs and her poetry. Both are beautifully evoked in “Scars” (music by Simon Wallace) introduced with a haunting bit of verse. Its literate, self-aware, lacerating heart is laid bare in her performance. The Latin rhythms of “Just for Now” (André and Dory Previn) take us away from the pain of the preceding track as it extols appreciation for the time we have. Dave Frishberg, one of jazz’s great storytellers along with Landesman, is another of Conklin’s favorites, and his wise and romantic words (set to Alan Broadbent’s laid back melody) for “Heart’s Desire” give the singer full sway to indulge her penchant for sharing good, wise, and healing advice.
Melba Liston’s bracing melody cushions Abbey Lincoln’s cautiously hopeful lyrics on “Rainbow,” providing a backdrop for the singer’s thoughtful delivery, lending the potentially simple lyrics a welcome maturity. Mining ’60s pop/folk once again, Conklin offers an exquisite “Until It’s Time for You to Go” (Buffy Sainte-Marie) filled with romantic longing tinged with an awareness of the vagaries of time and circumstance when it comes to love; her repetition of “…don’t ask why” transforms and deepens its bracing message. Caswell’s piercing violin elevates the track even further. The album closes with its oldest selection, “September Song” (Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson). It was written in 1938 for Knickerbocker Holiday but its poetry, in Conklin’s smart and heartfelt delivery, is as vital and contemporary as any of the other songs. Once again, as everywhere in this extraordinary recording, Mary Foster Conklin’s wisdom, artistry, and passion inform its message. It is the singer’s magic; it is our good fortune to receive it.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”