With the release of her second album, Cities Between Us, on SteepleChase Records, young New York-based jazz vocalist Allegra Levy demonstrates that she has moved on from her rookie recording to reach higher -- and noticeably happier -- ground. As Neil Tesser observes in his liner notes, this sophomore outing does not officially bear the subtitle, "The Lighter Side of Allegra Levy." Yet clearly something new and contagiously uplifting is underfoot, most notably on tunes like "Soy Califa," which includes one line that virtually sums up the entire album: "This beat is full of romance."
Levy's first record, the critically acclaimed Lonely City, released in 2014, was hailed by The New York Times as "freshŠ exoticŠ far beyond the ordinary." DownBeat called it "consistently engaging," and JazzTimes declared her "unquestionably one to watch." Yet with song titles like "Anxiety," "I'm Not OK," and the eminently danceable yet sardonic samba "I Don't Want to Be in Love," the now-27-year-old singer-songwriter's first record was seen by many to be surprisingly downhearted, especially for someone so young.
"I wasn't exactly criticized for that, but yes, people were saying that my music was on the darker end," Levy admits. That, however, was then. This is now. With catchy, upbeat melodies, many of them bursting with unrestrained vivacity and verve, the new songs prove that any prior feelings of melancholy or malaise have gone the way of the eight-track, boy bands and pet rock.
They also show that Levy is still writing lyric-centric songs steeped in the Great American Songbook and still focused on recording her own original music, though she also continues to find inspiration in classic melodies. Fresh off a seven-month stint as artist in residence at the Hong Kong Four Seasons Hotel, she had penned several new compositions, yet also felt inspired to insert her own words into a trio of well-known jazz artists' instrumental tunes.
Legendary pianist Duke Jordan's "Lullaby of the Orient" resonated due to Levy's own recent experiences in Asia. As she explains, "It had such a haunting melody that reminded me of the emotion I felt when I was living abroad." A second is "Soy Califa," by the late, great tenor sax man Dexter Gordon. "It had this really happy, positive, exciting sound and groove," Levy notes, "and I was able to write lyrics about feeling that way because I was feeling that way."
Then there's "Down Sunday," by renowned jazz trumpeter John McNeil, whom she has regarded as a mentor and musical soul mate ever since she studied with him at New England Conservatory of Music. McNeil produced Levy's first album, and supplied arrangements for two of her originals on this one as well. "John has such a talent for arranging in a style that adds intrigue to simple melodies and expresses the mood of the piece in a deep, meaningful way."
Also featured on the new record are Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Stephen Riley on tenor sax, Jay Anderson on bass, and Billy Drummond on drums, as well as pianist Carmen Staaf, who also did some of the arrangements.
"To me, Carmen is one of the most amazing musical voices in jazz, man or woman, today," Levy says of the rising piano star, who recently served as pianist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance Ensemble at UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music.
As for Knuffke and Riley, "They are such incredible modern players, and have such specific sounds that nobody else has," she says. "Plus, I got the honor of working with Billy Drummond and Jay Anderson, a powerhouse duo who have recorded with so many amazing musicians and really bring it to another level."
These two elder jazz statesmen also helped Levy rise to another challenge: the need to keep the spirit of jazz alive. "I think the best thing about this album is that it's very true to jazz," she says, "because it's pretty much a 'live' album - not in the sense of it being recorded before a live audience, but in that we recorded everything in one day." In today's world, too many musicians rely too much on technology, she believes.
This is not to suggest that the album was created overnight. The new set of songs evolved over time, some written while she was living in Hong Kong, others gradually acquiring added meaning in light of her travels - "new meaning and also more meaning," she says. Typical is the title track, "Cities Between Us."
"When I wrote it, it was about a long-distance relationship between New York and LA. But when I moved to Hong Kong, it became more about all of my relationships and how difficult it was to live so far away from friends and family."
Then there's the song that most directly explains why this lady is no longer singing the blues. "When I recorded my first album, I was going through a lot of emotional turmoil," she says. She had recently graduated college and was grappling with a complicated relationship.
"But with the second album, I had gained a sense of freedom by moving to the other side of the world," she says. "I was feeling strong and independent, not to mention happy." Unfortunately, for a composer, feeling up also has its down side. "I wrote 'Misery Makes the Music' because after I met my boyfriend in Hong Kong, I had a hard time writing now that I was feeling happy." She found herself wrestling with writer's block in the absence of emotional angst and a need to achieve catharsis. As the song wryly laments, "It isn't right, refusing to put up a fight. Instead you fill me with delight. But what's a song without some bite?"
Not everything on the album is sunshine, lollipops, and roses, of course. Another far more plaintive track finds her stuck "on endless middle ground/Love tossed me in the lost and found like a forgotten glove or winter hat."
That song, "Dear Friend," is probably her favorite song on the record, she says. "It's actually meant to be a letter. I was going through a breakup, and I was thinking about a particular friend I was trying to tell the story to. So it's also about the power of true friendship - how important it is, and how fleeting it can be when you travel. You see who sticks around and who doesn't. It's also about that feeling that you're at the end of your rope. That feeling of 'There's no help.' "
Wait, what happened to the lighter side of Allegra Levy? It evidently has learned that love is not all you need. There's also friendship. And, yes, music.
"I became a musician because when I heard certain songs and I was going through something difficult, I felt like I wasn't alone," she says. "When I heard Chet Baker, and Joni Mitchell, I thought those songs specifically spoke to me in that moment, and thought, 'That person knows exactly what I'm going through.'"
As for what she's going through now, with an album entitled Cities Between Us, at least one thing clearly remains to be remedied in her life.
"My music is like an open diary," she says, "a testament to where I am at any point in my life. Right now? Yes, there's still an issue to be resolved. My boyfriend still lives some distance away. But maybe by the next album he won't."