The Sonja Lee Band: Telling It Like It Is

This jazz standards album, featuring Sonja Lee on vocals and a backing quintet, is an effort by some prominent local jazzers playing songs about aggravating male characters. My biggest hang-up ends up being not that I can’t see myself enjoying it, but that I can’t tell whether a conventional jazz fan would. When I hear standards I expect them to be either conventional and professional or creatively interpreted. That the Sonja Lee band did a little of both left me cold at times and stoked at others.

From the outset, I am a little disappointed in the tone of the album, both sonically and mood-wise. Some songs don’t ever lock into a solid groove; they’ll play the song at a decidedly different tempo that doesn’t suit the content otherwise, or more often the song starts to say something but the solo or lead line comes on too strongly or with a different mood, dashing that new feel. Moreover, the production just doesn’t have that warmth that loungey jazz like this should. It doesn’t sound bad but the tone doesn’t complement the music. Here, there is more separation between instruments, there’s less smokiness to the sound of the room, and that further removes the listener from the mood.

The playing is good if not strong or commanding, the song selection is a good if maybe disappointing for jazz cats (if I can recognize most all of the songs, jazz folks must have heard them a million times) and there isn’t really a big hook here. However, the choice of “At Last” really saves the album for me, picking things up in the middle and grabbing the listener where a lesser track would maybe lose someone on the fence. Sonja Lee wanted to say something, and she probably did, but if you like jazz please let me know if this is a good jazz release; it’s pretty good on the universal scale, but that might not be enough. Certainly a nice bit of mood music, but not a barn-burning game-changer.