by Matt Silver, WRTI

An album of vocal duets isn’t the most common thing in jazz, and perhaps with good reason. The jazz sensibility tends to eschew the gimmicky, the overly sweet, the un-ironically corny. But the new collaboration between pianist—now, also, vocalist—Kevin Hays and vocalist Chiara Izzi, Across the Sea, may well prove among the exceptions.

When the talent is as extraordinary as it is here, suspending preconceived notions becomes a lot easier.

Hays has been one of the most respected accompanists in New York for years and has recorded with Joshua Redman and toured with Sonny Rollins, among others of similarly exalted standing. So it may seem curious to see him here with a relative newcomer in Izzi.

But she’s got some pretty impressive bona fides herself, winning the jazz vocal competition at Montreaux in 2011 where she caught the attention of that most prolific star-maker, Quincy Jones, who promptly and strongly urged her to head west.

She listened—because that’s what you do when Quincy Jones doles out instructions—and now she’s one of New York’s busiest vocalists. Multi-lingual and conversational in a myriad of musical idioms, she seems to fit squarely into the new class of young, absurdly talented, multi-lingual jazz vocalists, like Cyrille Aimee, who can seemingly sing it all with authenticity, unadulterated joy, and loads of style.

She’s a perfect match for Hays, whose musical tastes are similarly diverse and repertoire similarly expansive—Hays does the whole bop thing but the past decade has seen him record with the genre-defying Brad Mehldau and African fusion guitarist Lionel Loueke, while also reimagine=ing the music of Robert Schumann.

What results here is an album that speaks several languages fluently, handling, for example, the American songbook and heavy Middle Eastern/North African influence with the same high levels of dexterity and care.

Representation of the American canon comes in the form of an arrangement of Lerner and Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” A beautiful rendition, this iconic tune from My Fair Lady is so nicely balanced, just by virtue of the musicians’ differences. Her voice is highly stylized, his voice not at all, the combination a testament to opposites attracting and love’s power to bridge cultural divides.

Their take on Miles Davis’ “Nardis” (titled “Tierna Nardis” here) is exhilarating and foreboding and might be the most imaginative re-imagination on Across the Sea, evoking images of bustling bazaars and moonlit caravans across interminable expanses of desert. There is much temptation but also much to fear in the cold desert night.

Much of the arrangement’s atmospheric verisimilitude is surely owing to Omer Avital’s work on the oud, the lute-like instrument common in Middle Eastern and North African music. Surreally, Izzi sings in a language that sounds like Italian or Spanish (she’s the citizen of the world I aspire to be, but I’m not there yet) with the timbre of an Imam sending out the call to prayer, and Hays’ commanding riffs and runs on the piano show an impressive comfort with the motif.

While Across the Sea, as its name suggests, is certainly international in flavor, there are plenty of tunes with a distinctly domestic flavor, notably two that celebrate the work of singer-songwriter James Taylor.

Pat Metheny’s “James” sees Hays switch to the Fender Rhodes and introduces Gregoire Maret on harmonica. The vocal harmonies, befitting a vocalist like James Taylor, are some of the nicest on the album. “Secret O’Life” is a tune written by Taylor himself and one this duo seems to be drawn to for its introspective, existential lyrics (check out the album’s first cut, the dreamlike “Circles of the Mind” to see a theme emerge).

Saxophone great Chris Potter guests here on tenor (he also appears on “Viaggio Elegiaco,” playing soprano) with an extended solo that tends more toward “easy-listening” than we’re used to from Potter, but what he gives is exactly what the song calls for.

Rounding out the core group are drummer Greg Joseph and bassist Rob Jost, whom you can also hear on French horn on an arrangement of Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road.” Guitarist Nir Felder steals the aforementioned opening track and percussionist Rogerio Boccasto infuses “Verso Il Maro” with the unmistakable feel of the Latin Mediterranean.

Across the Sea may not be perfect, but it may be the best chance you get this summer to breathing in the Meditterranean without leaving the comfort of your own home.

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