CD Review: Judy Wexler’s “Back to the Garden”

August 2, 2021 | By

Los Angeles-based jazz singer Judy Wexler’s delectable new CD, “Back to the Garden,” comprises timely re-imaginings of 10 iconic pop-rock hits of the 1960s.  It’s an enlightening and therapeutic album as, from each of its familiar songs, Wexler draws out still-relevant messages and sentiments that help us both understand and cope with our contemporary political and social problems.  And Wexler is the perfect singer to do this.  Not only is her youthful “girl-next-door” sound an appropriate voice for this signature music of the Sixties counter-culture youth movement, but despite the charged contexts spurring much of the material, Wexler’s interpretations are inviting, gently informative, and never angry.  She’s not venting.  She’s offering conversation-starters, of the ilk we so need in America today. 

Wexler sings in an effortless, un-stylized fashion, as if she’s simply speaking to us, carefully articulating her words to make sure we really absorb their meaning.  Her voice is lovely, but that’s not her concern, she wants us to think, not just enjoy.  Her efforts on this recording (produced by Wexler and her longtime pianist Jeff Colella, who also did most of the arrangements) are bolstered by a tight group of musicians who contribute robustly, yet without upstaging Wexler’s vocals or overriding the key intentions driving her performance of each selection. 

Launching with an attack on the biggest problem currently facing our nation, Wexler opens her CD with “Get Together” (Chet Powers), a propulsive rock tune that pleads for an end to divisiveness.  Like she does throughout the album, Wexler takes the tune at a slower tempo than the original version, allowing us to really hear the lyrics for what they’re saying to us today, not just as merged components of our rote memories of the song as a whole.  The heavy rock arrangement is sensuously enhanced by the breathy background vocals of Erin Bentlage and Talley Sherwood (arranged by Bentlage), as well as Colella, whose bass voice quietly repeating “C’mon people now” at the end of the track says it all.  

Wexler then attends to our collective need these days for some soothing vibrations, and offers a leisurely rendition of “Up on the Roof” (Gerry Goffin, Carole King) that contains a yummy instrumental break by Colella on piano and the album’s terrific rhythm section—Larry Koonse (guitar), Gabe Davis (bass), and Steve Hass (drums).  Shifting into a more contemplative mood, Wexler takes on a Josh Nelson arrangement of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”  Making attractive use of a string quartet (arranged by Colella), it establishes a calm, focused space which, importantly, allows listeners to ponder the contradictory energies that the song insists have always characterized the American experience.  

The CDs four central tracks are all, in a sense, calls to action.  “Big Yellow Taxi” (Joni Mitchell), bemoaning our continual sacrifice of natural environments in the cause of commerce, is performed with such pizzazz—Wexler’s punchy vocal lines peppered by Danny Janklow’s spunky alto sax interjections—that we want to get up and shout, “No, don’t put up that parking lot!”  Our instincts to act are immediately affirmed as Wexler goes on to voice her flowing interpretation of the classic protest song “The Times They Are a Changin’” (Bob Dylan).  Elongating and altering pitches slightly here and there, she helps us hear these words anew, while her warm, assuring tone—underlined by cellist Stefanie Fife and Colella on melodica—persuades us that protesting is good, right, and decent.   And then, as if to remind us of the existence of good-hearted people, Wexler sings “Since You’ve Asked” (Judy Collins), the thoughts of a generous soul, presented here in a beautiful arrangement that makes haunting use of guitar and classically-styled strings.  Lest we get too complacent, the album’s next track is a wake-up call.  With its cool use of reverberations creating a psychedelic sensibility that screams “Sixties,” this presentation of “For What It’s Worth” (Stephen Sills) conjures nifty nostalgia while demanding we “stop” and “look what’s going down” as police and young people continue to clash today as turbulently as they did back then.  

Following affecting renditions of the anti-urban “Everybody’s Talkin’” (Fred Neil), and the hopeful “Forever Young” (Bob Dylan), both featuring expressive guitar playing by Bob Thiele, Jr., Wexler closes her CD with “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (Sandy Denny).  While the last selection gifts us precious meditative moments, it also serves an unexpected treat.  I almost hate to give away the surprise, but it’s such a brilliant move on the part of arrangers Colella and Nelson that it deserves kudos.  It comes in the form of trumpeter Jay Jennings, who appears nowhere else on the album, yet joins Wexler on this final track sounding long, shining notes that glimmer atop the rest of the music.  And he is given the final word.  After Wexler finishes her musings on the passing of time, Jennings delivers a concluding musical statement that evokes lingering feelings of lightness, serenity, and hope.  


Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Lisa Jo Sagolla is the author of "The Girl Who Fell Down: A Biography of Joan McCracken" and "Rock ‘n’ Roll Dances of the 1950s". A choreographer, critic, and historian, she has written for Back Stage, American Theatre, Film Journal International, and numerous other popular publications, encyclopedias, and scholarly journals. An adjunct professor at Columbia University and Rutgers, she is currently researching a book on the influence of Pennsylvania’s Bucks County on America’s musical theatre.

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