"Sound check" By MARTY HUGHLEY, The Oregonian, February 4, 2005

WHERE BASS INSTINCTS MEET MELODIC JOY -- The image is of something natural and lovely, a sign of growth and a symbol of optimism. In Belinda Underwood's song "Uncurling," "the simple joy of a delicate fern uncurling" serves as a metaphor for the emotional openness that new love can bring. But the phrase might also be used as a description of "Underwood Uncurling," the Portland singer/bassist's beguiling debut album.

A collection split evenly between well-chosen jazz standards and Underwood's own compositions, "Underwood Uncurling" is softly lyrical and intimate, sophisticated yet unassuming, contemplative but never ponderous. It's a very promising introduction to a young talent. And for Underwood herself, she sees it as a representation of her growth as a musician, songwriter and person.

The 28-year-old California native has been uncurling in several directions of late. In addition to jazz gigs, she performs in Beliss (an eclectic, ukulele-based folk duo with her younger sister Melissa), the Latin-jazz band Pachamanca and a Middle Eastern group called Wazn al Sharq.

She grew up in a musical household, her mother a jazz pianist (classically trained at University of Oregon, alongside the likes of bassist Glen Moore), her father a horn player and inventor of a popular pickup microphone for the acoustic bass. That background gave her the advantage of violin and piano lessons as a youngster, and a close-up look at jam sessions when her parents' friends dropped by. Family connections have continued to be a plus. For one thing, she can supplement her nightclub gigs with work for her father's company, Underwood Pickups. For another, she wound up with the internationally renowned Portland bassist David Friesen as a teacher and mentor.

Underwood had taken up the bass during high school, then while attending the University of California at Berkeley (initially to study astrophysics) began to take music more seriously. Friesen, an old friend of her parents, came to teach a master class.

"I remember one of my teachers calling me into her office and saying, 'You have to take this class,' " Underwood, a willowy beauty, recalled recently, sitting with drummer Martin Zarzar over steaming bowls of pho at a downtown Portland restaurant. "I showed up for the class -- late. And afterward he said that when I'd walked in he recognized me from having met me when I was a baby."

That brief class was a turning point. Feeling she'd learned so much in that single session, she asked Friesen to give her lessons. He said no. But she kept asking and months later, convinced of her seriousness, he relented on the condition that she move to Portland.

Arriving about two years ago, she found inspiration not only in Friesen, who she credits with pressing her to become a songwriter, but also in a jazz community she says is much more inviting than that in the Bay Area.

"Underwood Uncurling" takes advantage of that community in the talents of Zarzar (of Pink Martini and Pachamanca), guitarist Dan Balmer, saxophonist John Gross, and pianist Clay Giberson. And though Underwood handles the big upright herself on a few tracks, she leaves the heavy lifting for Friesen and another Portland stalwart, Phil Baker.

Friesen's involvement also helped secure another guest star, the famed Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira. And at times Underwood's pillowy vocal tone and unhurried melodies recall the original incarnation of Chick Corea's Return to Forever, which included Moreira and his wife, singer Flora Purim. There's even a cover of Corea's "You're Everything" from that period.

This is a jazz singer, though, who counts Bobby Gentry and Bjork among her favorites, along with No. 1 influence Nancy King. As she continues to fashion those disparate tastes into a style of her own, chances are she'll uncurl more and more into, simply, a joy. BELINDA UNDERWOOD



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