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True voices

Becca Stevens and Laszlo Gardony
By JON GARELICK  |  January 12, 2009

HOLD THE HAM: Stevens opens her mouth and lets the music do the work.

WFNX Jazz Brunch Top Five
1. The Blue Note 7, Mosaic [Blue Note]
2. Wave Mechanics Union, Second Season [HX Music]
3. Gilfema, Gilfema + 2 [ObliqSound]
4. Will Bernard, Blue Plate Special [Palmetto]
5. Danilo Pérez/Claus Ogerman, Across the Crystal Sea [Emarcy]
When I first checked out Travis Sullivan's Björkestra live, it wasn't to see the singer. After all, the drawing card for the Björkestra was the Icelandic pop star's music as arranged for jazz big band. What the hell would that sound like, and would it be a watering down of an idiosyncratic singer/songwriter to familiar latter-day jazz swing? On the band's own early recordings, the vocals had seemed subordinate to the ensemble, with different singers playing the role.

But live, the Björkestra (at the Regattabar last October) turned my expectations upside down. Saxophonist Sullivan used Björk as raw material for exciting playing and writing. What's more, the singer was a knockout. Becca Stevens wasn't doing a Björk impersonation — she didn't affect the octave-leaping growls and choked-off syllables. But she sailed through Sullivan's tricky charts, maintaining a sturdy, gleaming tone at full voice over a blasting ensemble. On tough nuts like "Hyperballad," she matched technique with emotional commitment, but without hamming it up. She just opened her mouth and let the music do the work.

In December, I caught Stevens singing a few songs at the Lily Pad (on a bill with Boston subversives the Quartet of Happiness and solo saxophonist Patrick Breiner). She was just as self-assured solo. She sang one song with a guitar, a second with a ukulele, a third with the small 10-string South American charango. She sang some of the songs from her Becca Stevens Band CD Tea Bye Sea, and here was not only that big voice and no-bullshit emotional delivery but also some impressive fretwork, as she finger-picked tricky rhythmic patterns against her vocal line and also worked in a little bent-note figure on her song "Canyon Dust" that I would have thought impossible on a ukulele.

It turns out that, at 24, Stevens — who plays gigs this weekend with her band at the Lily Pad and Providence's AS220 and is a featured performer in Adam Rich's open-mic night at Tommy Doyle's — is a seasoned pro. Brought up in a musical family in North Carolina, she had made her first record by the age of two with the family's band, the Tune Mammals. At 10, she played in a national tour of The Secret Garden with her mother. There was a stint at the North Carolina School for the Arts majoring in classical guitar and then one at the New School in New York studying jazz voice and composition. She's also become the first-call singer for the Björkestra, singing on their Koch debut, Enjoy!

Stevens has been steeped in jazz (in addition to the Björkestra, she's sung with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and pianist Frank LoCrasto, and on saxophonist Sam Sadigursky's "Words Project"). Tea Bye Sea is a singer-songwriter record emphasizing acoustic string instruments and folk-type tunes. But in the midst of it are odd instrumentations (accordion, banjo, glockenspiel), odd dissonances, disruptive syncopations. And Stevens's love-song laments are refreshingly self-aware, as when she apologizes to a beau that "all my moods/And demands/Left-over promises made to myself/From all the pain/From other men/Come down on you like frozen rain."

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