Belinda Underwood positions her sound in the margin between jazz and folk. It’s a style that’s been exploited profitably both in musical and financial terms by Norah Jones, Joni Mitchell, Phoebe Snow, and others. Yet there always seems something tenuous and fragile about these singers. It’s as if the blending is so unstable, it always remains in flux. While other fusions have become established in their own right, folk jazz always seems to be creating itself anew. Listen to Underwood Uncurling and you can hear that synthesis as it takes shape.
Underwood’s half-dozen originals provide the nucleus of the session. They talk either about the vagaries of love, or in the case of “Trees” and “World Peace Blues”, cosmic issues. The four love songs are the best. For Underwood love is at once transitory and yet enduring. In “Uncurling”—to my ears the most fully realized song—she speaks wistfully of an early love, a man, “boy” in the terms of the song (all the better to rhyme with “joy”), who loves and leaves her. Yet Underwood is disinclined to vitriol. Though sad, she’s also happy to have shared that toe-curling ardor. Pianist Clay Giberson unfurls a solo that explores the song’s emotional current.
In “Later Baby”, Underwood dispatches a lover, who she feels is a “gift” to her, with the sentiment that she hopes they find each other again when she’s more mature. “But don’t stay away forever. Someday I’ll be ready... And you’ll like me better anyway.” She delivers these with a distracted sensuality. Underwood weds her words to melodies that drift and wander, almost flighty. And these are set with appropriate acoustic colors. This includes her own work on bass and, on “Say My Name”, a lover’s plea for consideration, bass ukulele. With Martin Zarzar providing subtle percussion accents, the song is a portrait of melancholy.
In “Trees”, Underwood addresses the need for ecological awareness with far less subtlety and distinctiveness. First she evokes an ideal past and contrasts this with the rise of “synthetic cities”. As sympathetic as I am to the message, the images intended to convey it sound like hand-me-downs. (Cities are not necessarily the symbol of ecological degradation—rampant suburban sprawl, the proliferation of “naked acres”—is a far more pertinent sign.)
“World Peace” serves as a jam vehicle; the title provides the only lyrics. Underwood, with a trio of John Gross on tenor saxophone, David Friesen, bass, and Airto Moreira, percussion, delivers a performance at once unsettled, searching yet hopeful. Friesen and Moreira enliven the four tracks they’re on; Underwood benefits from a high level of accompaniment throughout, both in realizing her originals and in the six cover tunes.
Four of those—“How Deep Is the Ocean”, “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, “Invitation”, and “There Will Never Be Another You”—fall into the oft-heard category. And while Underwood has a lilting, sunny soprano, reminiscent of Marlene Ver Planck, she brings little new to her reading of the lyrics. Even “There Will Never...”, which lyrically addresses the same romantic concerns as a couple of her own songs, she sounds like she’s just visiting the tune, not living it. Better is the less known “Born To Be Blue” by Mel Torme and Robert Wells, the same duo who have us roasting chestnuts over an open fire each Yule. And Underwood sashays through Chick Corea’s “You’re Everything”, though even with Airto kicking the song along as he did on the original, it still doesn’t gallop quite like Return to Forever.
The cover tunes, paired with her originals, serve to introduce Underwood by telling the listener a bit about where her roots are. The originals point to where she may be heading; I look forward to seeing where that is.
- David Dupont, One Final Note, April 11, 2005