Still beautiful, vivacious and in fantastic spirit and voice nearly twenty years beyond Moonlighting and over 30 since she first charmed us in The Last Picture Show, Cybill Shepherd has suffered her whole professional life from one overriding struggle — she’s just too darn talented.
Over the past three decades, she’s put out well-received jazz recordings, dating from 1976’s Cybill Getz Better (with Stan Getz) and 1979’s Vanilla (with Phineas Newborn, Jr.) to 2001’s Live From The Cinegrill. Yet in most American psyches, she’s still Maddie Hayes, Cybill Sheridan (her character on her late 90s hit sitcom Cybill) or, more recently and dramatically, star of the TV movie Martha Stewart, Inc.
Shepherd sang two songs on 1987’s Moonlighting Soundtrack, and was thrilled in 1999 when Cybill: Songs from the Cybill Show hit #1 on the Amazon sales charts. She performed a handful of times over the course of the Top 10 show, but was continuously frustrated that those 20 hour days as star and producer kept her from pursuing monstrous musical opportunities — like performing with Quincy Jones and opening the Minneapolis Opera House.
“It’s great when people are tuning in, but it almost killed me doing the show,” she says. “When I’m not performing and singing regularly, I’m missing something important. We always got big ratings when I did sing, but it was never often enough for me. Growing up in Memphis, my parents imparted to me their wild love of swing, and I’d dance, then sing as often as I could. I’ve loved swing jazz my whole life. I’d sing along with Ella as a vocal exercise, and I was crazy about Sinatra, Basie, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford… they’re all a part of me. It’s hard to bottle it for any length of time.”
No need anymore. Several years removed from the TV grind, she’s back to her first love. Recorded in her home studio with longtime accompanist Tom Adams on piano, the romantic, intimate At Home With Cybill grew out of rehearsals they did for her successful one woman variety show “Cybill Disobedience… With Music!” which ran at the Soho Theatre in London for two weeks last October — and also hit Melbourne, New York, Vegas, Scottsdale, and her two hometowns, L.A. and Memphis. Using a mic placed in her wardrobe closet, Shepherd runs through lush and restrained treatments of standards she’s long loved — “I’ve Learned A Lot About The Blues,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “My Romance,” “I Have Dreamed” — plus a wistful original about her hometown icon, “Graceland Revisited.” An intense perfectionist, she got most songs down in a handful of takes, but worked through “Begin the Beguine” 150 times before giving it the thumbs up.
“The song was growing as we were doing it, and it’s just a difficult song to get right,” she says. “It’s always haunted me. What’s it about? I have found that in jazz, sometimes the best takes come from mistakes you make along the way. I respond to those and the song gets better. I don’t concern myself with compromise. If I connect with it, I’m going to make sure it’s right.”
Apart from her jazz life, Shepherd these days is enjoying raising two 17 year olds and deflecting the snickers she gets as national spokeswoman for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, part of her ongoing association with the National Women’s Health Resources Center. She talks about it in her act, in lectures and on talk shows. It’s a crippling condition, she says, that women have suffered from in silence long enough.
“It’s all about doing something only I can do,” she says. “I survived a rare form of skin cancer and IBS and I’m in a position to educate and help people. And it’s not like I haven’t found entertaining ways to tackle taboo subjects. The two episodes of Cybill where we talked about menopause were among our highest rated. The DVD that comes along with At Home With Cybill features a performance of ‘Menopause Blues,’ which I did on the show. It’s like jazz. Have fun, improvise, try something new, but make sure the message gets across.”
Having a three year plus layoff between releases seems to have added a sense of urgency to Everette Harp’s sax playing on his A440 debut All For You, one of the most feisty smooth jazz outings of the past year. Perhaps guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr., who graces four of the twelve tracks, said it best about the veteran saxman: “You play every solo as if it’s your last.” Harp’s always been the master of cool, mid-tempo ballads like “Back In Your Arms” (which features an interesting EWI solo, a sound we haven’t heard much of in recent years) and the Babyface cover “When Can I See You Again.” But the funk jams (“Kisses Don’t Lie,” “Just Like Ole Times”) take a super-aggressive approach focused around Harp’s intense sax thrust and the throbbing bass of masters like Alex Al and Larry Kimpel. He also indulges us with a powerful, Hubert Laws-like flute harmony line (usually a smooth jazz no-no) on “Can You Hear Me Now.” Producing or co-helming every track, Harp works with numerous genre stars who also happen to be old pals, including guitarists Dwight Sills, Norman Brown and Earl Klugh. Mentor and longtime Harp collaborator George Duke makes a cameo on Fender Rhodes on the closing chillout tune, “In The Blink of An Eye,” which the two co-wrote.
Longtime legends in their native Colorado, the raucous jazz pop fusion locomotive Dotsero once again whipped up a frenzy at last October’s Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival. Led by The Watts Brothers, guitarist David and saxman Stephen, they’re one of the rare genre bands that captures this same sort of energy in the studio. Their recordings over the years consistently demonstrate their abilities to both rock out with blistering intensity, yet also touch the heart with romantic and lyrical subtleties. Fresh Pants (Cinderblock Records) rocks heavy immediately with the raucous, horn drenched jam “You Talkin To Me?” and the edgy, sizzling “Sweetness #34” before chilling out for the trippy, atmospheric tracks “My Leap of Faith” and the mid-tempo title tune, which includes soothing wordless vocals on the chorus. The contrast in tone and style will keep listeners on their toes as the Watts dart through the hot funk of “Green Goblin” before calming down for the sweet soprano sax/acoustic guitar lullaby “Sleep Tight Katydid.” And for smooth jazz fans who love rock and roll, their scorching take on Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” is up there with their best cover ever, “She Drives Me Crazy.” The tune features interesting production effects which make David Watt’s guitar sound distorted in spots, and his powerful aggression throughout does Aero guitarist Joe Perry proud.
Anyone concerned that legendary Tower of Power trumpet great and arranger Greg Adams would have a tough transition into solo stardom need worry no longer — his 2002 Blue Note hit Midnight Morning was excellent and Firefly, his nearly flawless debut on 215 Records, is even better. While still best known on smooth jazz radio for his somewhat pedestrian muted horn cover of Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” Adams’ pop sensibilities ensure numerous potential airplay hits on Firefly. The best tracks are of course the horn-section drenched ones, led by Adams himself — the peppy and percussive, retro-soul spiced title track, a moody and atmospheric ride up the “5 North,” the rolling with the top down, Herb Alpert-like “Time Is Of the Essence” (with Mark Hollingsworth’s alto blending into a lush harmony with Adams’ horn), the gentle, swaying romance “Not So Long Ago” and the all-out party hearty whirlwind “Loco Motive,” which out-TOPs TOP, if that’s possible. Trad jazz fans will also enjoy the late night closing track “Just Like Breathing,” with its subtle synth bass, brooding piano and slight drum brushes.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO
1) Kai Alece, Reason, Season or Lifetime (G-Rod Records) – Fans of the much more renowned Alicia Keys and Lalah Hathaway will find strength, warmth and conviction in the cozy old-school soul meets sly jazz sensibilities of this remarkable, silky voiced indie artist.
2) Dave Hill, Two Seasons (Dave Hill Music)
3) Nicholas Gunn, Breathe (Gemini Sun Records)
4) Soul Ballet, Dream Beat Dream (215 Records)
5) Tony Bennett, The Art of Romance (RPM Records/Columbia)