Norah No More

Feb 1, 2006 at 4:00 am
Listeners who know Erin Bode only from her debut CD, Don't Take Your Time, may be in for a surprise when they hear Over and Over, the newly released sophomore effort from the St. Louis vocalist. Sure, Bode's voice is still pleasingly clear and melodic, perhaps even stronger and more flexible than before, thanks to a couple of years of steady work and the natural process of maturation.

Beyond that, though, "pretty much everything changed" from Time, says Bode. "It went from being one original song and a bunch of professional musicians from New York, who are excellent, to mostly original music and the guys that I work with every day, who are great musicians too."

While her first CD emphasized interpretations of well-known songs, Over and Over presents Bode as a singer-songwriter and, perhaps equally important, a band member. Recorded in four days last May at Systems Two Studios in Brooklyn, New York, the CD features ten songs written by Bode and keyboard player Adam Maness, plus a Maness solo composition and three covers.

With Maness, bassist Syd Rodway (who's also Bode's husband) and drummer Chris Higginbottom as the core band, the CD sounds much more like Bode's live act than her debut did. "I guess that was my goal: to have the album reflect what we do when we perform," she says.

In addition, while the first record was produced by Bode's MAXJAZZ labelmate Bruce Barth, the new CD's production is credited to the Erin Bode Group. All four provided input on arrangements and mixes, Bode says, and they also gave a free hand to guest musicians Dave Eggar on cello and tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake to create their own parts.

Over the past year, Blake has become almost a fifth member of the band, soloing all over the new CD, touring Italy with the group last year and providing many of the instrumental highlights of the first of Bode's three evenings last week at Jazz at the Bistro. In performance, songs like "A Long, Long Time" and "The Optimist" (the latter written since the CD was recorded) featured extended codas that allowed Blake, who also leads his own band in New York, plenty of room to stretch out to good effect. Bode, wearing a simple dark blouse and skirt, was in fine voice and projected confidence and charm to the sell-out crowd. Meanwhile, her bandmates, looking more alt-rock scruffy than jazz-club swanky, provided disciplined and sensitive accompaniment.

Call it pop music with a jazz aesthetic, or maybe "crossover," a term that comes up several times in conversation with Bode. The performances may be infused with an improvisational sensibility, but the underlying songs are the product of months of refinement.

"It's been a year and a half in the making, you know, building out those songs and performing them enough that we felt really comfortable with them," Bode says.

"We'll write songs and the same evening, we'll perform them. We'll take them to the gig and play them, see how people like them, or see how they feel for us to play," she continues. "We do a lot of restaurant gigs, where you have a small group of people listening and then a lot of people are talking. So you can just break out whatever music you want. And I think it's kind of fun for the audience, too, 'cause they're like, 'Oh, you're doing some new music,' and they get to kind of be part of it."

Perfecting the arrangements also meant making lots of demos on home recording equipment, which proved invaluable once the time pressure of being in the studio kicked in. "It's hard to make a pop album in four days. That's usually a marathon job," Bode says. "We made a pop album on jazz-album time."

Tight budgets aside, Bode is very pleased with the artistic freedom accorded her by her label. "What's great about MAXJAZZ is they have so much faith in their artists to just do what they do. It's kind of an ideal situation when it comes to recording. They're like, 'You've got music? Good, let's record it.'"

MAXJAZZ's Clayton McDonnell agrees. "Our biggest decision is choosing the artist. We don't necessarily feel obligated to tell them what has to be on the record." But can the label, widely respected in the jazz world but with little experience in the pop market, help Bode's record find a wider audience? "It does pose something of a challenge, but it's nothing that we can't handle," McDonnell says. "I feel we can promote her effectively and market her." Toward that end, McDonnell says the label will augment its usual efforts in the jazz market with independent promotion specialists to help push the record to "adult-alternative" stations and other compatible radio formats.

Of course, pop singers have been working with jazz musicians forever, from a young Frank Sinatra fronting for Tommy Dorsey to Billy Joel featuring a Phil Woods sax solo on "Just the Way You Are." Presented with a comparison of her work to the records Joni Mitchell and Carole King have done with jazz players, Bode sees some parallels. "I think that's a compliment, that's excellent," she says with a giggle that reminds one why the Wall Street Journal once referred to her as "girlish." "The more I listen to Seamus' solos on our songs, it reminds me of when James Taylor, Paul Simon or Steely Dan used to have saxophone solos in their songs."

Genre labels aside, Bode is committed to her own music, and if the reaction of the crowd at the Bistro is any indication, there's definitely an audience for it. "That really feels good to me, and it's really nice to be able to create your own thoughts on things. I think that I enjoy that the most," she says. "It's nice if you can bring something new to an old song. I don't think I'll ever totally stop doing that, but I definitely find doing original music really rewarding."