Most jazz vocalists sing standards. Allegra Levy writes her own. From the plaintive title track of her brazenly autobiographical debut album, Lonely City, to the haunting strains of its intricate closing ballad, "The Duet," the 24-year-old New York-based vocalist and composer has penned a lyrical collection of 11 harmonically adventurous-yet-familiar originals steeped in the tradition of the Great American Songbook.
"This is a mature first recording by a singer you're sure to hear more from," says renowned trumpeter John McNeil, who produced the album, which will be released by SteepleChase Lookout on November 10th. "The tunes are catchy and well-constructed, and you'll probably find yourself singing them in a short time. I sing them still."
The album features Levy with an all-star band: drummer Richie Barshay, bassist Jorge Roeder, tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker, guitarist Steve Cardenas, trumpeter John Bailey, pianist Carmen Staaf, and violinist Mark Feldman.
"Richie is one of the most imaginative drummers of our time," Levy says of the percussionist, a fellow native of West Hartford, CT, who has played with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Esperanza Spalding. "He had a really clear understanding of all my tunes and took them to other places."
Staaf, a rising piano star recently chosen as the pianist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music, contributed several arrangements. "Carmen is a very emotional, passionate musician and would know what I wanted even before I knew," Levy says. "I've never connected more musically with a person on so many levels."
She also found a musical soul mate in McNeil, with whom she studied at New England Conservatory. "John and I are very like-minded people. We have a dash of cynicism in all of our work," she said of the trumpeter-composer, who has played with Horace Silver, Thad Jones, and currently leads the quartet Hush Point. "He's been a real mentor to me. He performs the high-wire balancing act of embracing tradition while championing the progressive. "
Levy is currently completing a seven-month residency at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong. She made her international debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2008, and has since cut her teeth in New York and New England clubs including Tomi Jazz, Somethin' Jazz, The Flatiron Room, and Black-Eyed Sally's.
Levy takes her inspiration from legendary vocalists Carmen McRae and Betty Carter-altos comfortable exploring the lower register-but also classic composers Richard Rodgers, Jule Styne, and Henry Mancini. "Their melodies have lasted for so long and are still so beautiful," she says. "My goal was to retain that timeless sound with modern lyrics. Bring standards into now."
Yet there is nary an old standard to be found. As a prolific composer, she ultimately chose the daring route of restricting her debut to originals. "That was definitely a risk," she says, "but I figured I'm going to be myself, this is what I have to say, and I'm just going to say it now the way I want to say it." Levy began composing the material for Lonely City when she was a freshman at NEC, encouraged by vocalist Dominique Eade, whom she describes as "a jazz goddess."
Lonely City focuses on the most universal of themes. "The album chronicles the emotional ups and downs of being with somebody else and not being with somebody else," Levy explains. The Joni Mitchell-inspired ballad "Everything Green" waxes nostalgic about those ephemeral, often painful moments. "Joni Mitchell tells stories. Her lyrics are very strong and very intimate," she says. "It's meaningful when somebody just lays her life out there like that."
Levy finds this emotional rawness with an understated vocal style that emphasizes phrasing over pipes. "You go to concerts and hear these incredible powerhouse voices, and it's very moving, but I really like to explore the little corners of subtlety in the harmonics and lyrics."
On the wistful "A Better Day, " Levy draws from the legacy of the great scatters to convey the ineffable, breaking down the barrier between vocalist and instrumentalist. "Improvisation is just another way in which I like to express myself," she says. "Every once in awhile I just want to let loose and explore the harmonics more-say something else." Despite a propensity to improvise, she still believes that powerful lyrics can "bridge the gap between the audience and the music."
The lilting title track, "Lonely City," is "about finding your lost love," she says and has a harmonic simplicity that belies the bewilderment that goes into the search. "There are a lot of ship references, and the idea is that by the end of the song you get to that lighthouse or safe harbor."
Most of her other compositions diverge from the typical lament that "my man has up and gone," tackling instead the deeper angst of struggling to cope in a world that cries out for levity and conformity.
"There's a different kind of blues for a woman," she contends. "There's a different tale of woe. And it's a little more complex than 'I lost my love.' Now it's 'I want to find my place in the world.'"
Typical of this realist's outlook is "I'm Not OK," a self-deprecating yet defiant anthem that is the only true blues track on the album, and the samba "I Don't Want to Be in Love," the record's most up-tempo entry. "You hear Latin music and can't help but dance to it, and love is the same to me-only this is kind of an unwanted dance," she says. A decidedly different dance number is the propulsive "Clear-Eyed Tango," featuring virtuoso Mark Feldman on violin. "Mark brings the edge and explosive emotion that the song needed. There are few violinists in the world who could provide that."
Writing Lonely City was a cathartic experience, and Levy hopes that hearing it will be cathartic for the listener as well.
"These are real experiences that I've had, and I want somebody else to know that they're not alone," she says. "That's what the blues is all about. It's about togetherness. It's not just, 'I've got the blues.' It's not just, 'I'm not OK.' It's 'Let's bear this all together.'"