Portland Oregon singer/bassist Belinda Underwood’s first CD as a leader is one that sounds as if it were the result of a mature talent—one who shuns the too-often-heard tendency to include as many varying styles as possible, however tangential they may be to the musician’s central interests, in order to include references to a lifetime of influences. Instead, Underwood arrives fully formed with a central theme governing the content of Underwood Uncurling and a subtle consistency of feeling that hints at the roiling undercurrents of conflicted emotions. In addition, she is a writer of haunting lyrics, some painfully romantic and others environmentally observational, that attract the listener’s attention, so non-traditional and poetically written are they. The other half of the tracks on the CD include standards that reinforce Underwood’s feelings of disappointment, world weariness or undeterred pursuit.
With exacting articulation and dynamic understatement allowing the words to speak for themselves, Underwood, initially a bass player, implies a pulse, though unsung, as she holds out notes. On a few of the tracks like “How Deep Is the Ocean” or “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Underwood takes up the bass for self-accompaniment, returning to her origins where she sang some of the lines that she imagined while playing bass. Even on those standards, though, Underwood sings with the coolness of a Chris Connor, never raising her voice but instead painting a scene or making a statement. On “Born to Be Blue,” it’s easy to believe that Underwood knows what it’s like to be blue, the knowledge of such melancholy seeping through in her voice. And on “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Underwood sinks so deeply into the meaning of the song that it seems that she’s conveying lessons that she learned through her own experience, whether or not she is. “Invitation” comes across with similar combinations of sultriness and caution instilled by hurt. And Underwood’s bounding bass playing on “How Deep Is the Ocean,” which leads into a bass walk in mid-song, makes clear the source of the pulse felt in her singing.
Underwood’s own compositions, though, include infatuation and head-long involvement despite the knowledge gained from being burned in the past: “Earth school can be cruel,/Love is in short supply/I feel insane from the joy/Of simply having met a boy/So willing to learn.” And her Later, Baby puts forth this sentiment: “Don’t think I don’t want you/If I ask you to go away…/Someday I’ll be grown-up, responsible,/And you’ll like me better anyway.” But like Patricia Barber or other singer/songwriters with minds of their own, Belinda Underwood’s effectiveness derives equally from her musical sense that sustains a rhythm in the words she sings or even in the rests between notes, largely because of her groups’ like-mindedness from playing in other groups with Underwood.
Fortunately, the person responsible for Underwood’s move to Portland, Dave Friesen, appears on the CD’s most memorable song, “World Peace Blues,” whose lyrics consist of just two words—yes, “world” and “peace.” Underwood scat-sings throughout the remainder of the track, which includes one of Friesen’s distinctively melodic solos and an urgent solo by tenor saxophonist John Gross. All in all, Underwood Uncurling introduces a jazz singer with her own perspectives coloring the her first CD’s songs, and she does it with casual confidence.
- Bill Donaldson, Jazz Improv Magazine, April 2005