by Thomas Cunniffe
One characteristic that separates American Popular Song from other vocal genres is its use of the first-person narrative. The singer acts as both narrator and subject of the song (so it’s “My Funny Valentine”, not “His—or “Her—Funny Valentine”). Even a song like “A Sleepin’ Bee” which opens in an objective second-person narrative, inevitably turns to first-person: “He’s mine for the taking/I’m so happy at last”. Each song becomes a miniature drama where the singer plays a different role. As Deborah Shulman has found, “once you’ve established where you are at the beginning of a song, the rest becomes a journey. It’s never the same way as long as you’re willing to take that journey. To me, that’s the art of singing this music.”
On “My Heart’s in the Wind”, Shulman takes us on eleven different journeys, each related to events and experiences in her own life. For example, her parents passed away exactly six months apart. Shortly after her mother died, she took her father to a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Passion”. The song “Loving You” echoed the feelings that her parents had for each other, and as that song was sung, Shulman and her father grasped each other’s arms to provide mutual emotional strength. Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers” is a song that associates the life force of water with the abyss between life and death; Shulman associates it with her father’s struggles after the passing of his life partner. “You are There” reminds Shulman of happier times when she and her husband would visit her parents’ home for dinner and conversation.
Shulman brings her maturity and wisdom to the music on this album. Her sublime reading of “My Foolish Heart” explores the two opposing emotions expressed in the lyric. It is a song about new love and the freedom to love again, but it also a song about the fear of another impending heartbreak. At the beginning, she communicates that fear through short phrases and hesitations. As she moves further into the song, the phrases get longer and her tone warms up as she convinces herself that “this time it’s love”. At the end of the song, she brings back those short phrases, but now they are sung with renewed assuredness that “this time it isn’t fascination or a dream that will fade and fall apart”. Like a great storyteller, Shulman finds the key words in each phrase, and sets them apart to emphasize their importance.
This album was recorded in 2007, while Shulman was under contract with another record label. For various reasons, it was not issued at the time. Shulman did a limited release on her own, but wanted to share this very personal music with a larger audience. The accompanying musicians, led by pianist Terry Trotter, all have vast experience working with singers. In addition to being Shulman’s music director at the time, Trotter has worked with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Celine Dion and Natalie Cole. Guitarist Larry Koonse is a favored accompanist by Luciana Souza, Karrin Allyson and Tierney Sutton, while bassist Ken Wild has performed with Dianne Reeves, Maureen McGovern and Carol Welsman. Joe LaBarbera was the drummer in Tony Bennett’s trio for several years. The full quartet only appears on four of the tracks, but they create a seamless ensemble, offering a lovely cushion for Shulman’s intimate vocals. On the remaining seven tracks Trotter and Koonse work separately and together to provide Shulman with sensitive and flexible backgrounds. On “A Sleepin’ Bee” they are a complete rhythm section in themselves, with Koonse supporting Trotter’s chords while also deftly providing a bass line!
Unlike many albums recorded today, “My Heart’s in the Wind” was recorded live in the studio so that Shulman and the instrumentalists could react to each other. Trotter’s arrangements were deliberately kept loose so that improvisation could play a role in each track. All of the finished recordings were made within three takes, and several of them are first takes. While Shulman does not scat anywhere on this album, she does take chances, as with her behind-the-beat phrasing and her daring melodic variations on “My One and Only Love”. When singing the tender “Never-Never Land”, she reveals an elastic approach to the time, weaving the lyrics in between the melodic backgrounds provided by Trotter and Koonse. In contrast, she sings “Shiver Me Timbers” with closer attention to the meter, but with long arching phrases that bring out the song’s folk-like character. Even in this atmosphere, jazz is a central element, and one motif which Koose improvised during the recording so impressed Shulman that she’s having it incorporated into her live arrangement.
Shulman says that this album is filled with songs she wishes she had written herself. But regardless of who wrote the music and lyrics, Shulman makes these pieces her own with her thoughtful and heartfelt interpretations. While many will doubtlessly use this album as romantic background music, I hope that some listeners will listen to this recording closely and repeatedly, for that is the best way to appreciate Shulman’s unique talent. She makes these stories come alive through impeccable placed words and exquisitely sculpted phrases. “My Heart’s in the Wind” is a rich collection of music, and it’s good to have it available to the general public. May it take you on many wondrous journeys.
THOMAS CUNNIFFE is a free-lance writer who resides in Denver, Colorado. An award-winning author, he is the founder, publisher, principal writer and editor of www.jazzhistoryonline.com. In addition to writing about music, he is an experienced vocalist in both the jazz and classical fields.