REVIEW: Amy Cervini Quartet at the Lily Pad, Dec. 18, 2009

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.

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