After more than 50 years, the pre-1950s American Songbook is
beginning to lose some of its grip on mainstream jazz. Or, at least, other
songs are coming in. At the Lily Pad last Thursday night, the young Canadian
singer Amy Cervini (a 2000 New England Conservatory grad) did indeed sing the
standard "Come Love." And she sang it backed by a standard jazz-piano trio. But
she also sang Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," Jack Johnson's "Upside Down,"
Willie Nelson's "Sad Songs and Waltzes," Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of
Your Life)," Weezer's "Holiday," and the Cardigans' "Lovefool" (the title track
of her new Anzic CD). She announced the first song of the night, another
standard, as the band's "theme song": Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In."
There's always the danger with jazz covers of contemporary pop
that quirk will turn conventional - or into lounge-act self-parody. You don't
want to hear "Enjoy the Silence" lapse into Bill Murray singing "Star Wars."
But Cervini had a way of preserving the oddities of the originals and adding
some of her own. She and drummer Ernesto Cervino (her younger brother)
introduced the Depeche Mode song with a 12/8 handclap before pianist Michael
Cabe joined in. "Lovefool" was performed as a tango; "Holiday" got peppy
back-up singing from the band. And they brought Billie Joe Armstrong's melody
and lyrics to the forefront of "Good Riddance" while also adding jazz layers to
its harmonies and 7/4 rhythm.
Cervini has a clear, rounded mezzo-soprano range, and she sings
straight up, with little or no vibrato. Her singing drew distinctions between
rhythm and phrasing - that is, she can swing, but she also knows where a lyric
should fall in the melody and how to turn a syllable. She was especially
effective with Blossom Dearie's "Bye Bye Country Boy" and Nellie McKay's "I
Wanna Get Married." The former is a kind of standard by an old-school jazz-cabaret
singer; the latter is by a young singer-songwriter who likes old-school,
standard-like rhymes and chords. Cervini made a few comments throughout the
night about her book's veering away from "the American Songbook," but in fact
she's only helping to make that songbook bigger.