Sibilating Siberry Soars In Gentle Jazz Setting

Jennie Punter, Special To The Star
The Toronto Star, p. H9
November 23, 1995

It's doubtful whether I have ever used the word "croon" to describe what Jane Siberry does in front of a microphone. Maybe coo, warble, lilt, chirrup, trill, chant or even sibilate, but never croon.

That is, until I heard the first strains of Maria. Siberry's seventh album is the most sustained improvisational effort of the singer/songwriter's entire recording career, which began 15 years ago with her eponymous debut.

Captured in a very "live" three-day session at Toronto's Reaction Studios last fall, the music of Maria features a crack ensemble with Siberry soaring and swooping and, yes, crooning, in jazz-imbued settings, exploring the depths of her wide vocal range and slithering around with a warm vibrato.

Siberry's concert at the Danforth Music Hall tomorrow -- the last stop on a short North American tour -- features two members of that ensemble, pianist Tim Ray and trumpet player David Travers-Smith, as well as Dean Sharp on drums and Booker King on standup bass.

Anyone who's heard the singer perform in the Quiet Please There's a Lady On Stage series won't be too surprised by "the croon," but those who have only followed her recorded output will be pleasantly taken aback by the refreshing new muse.

Maria marks a radical change in Siberry's recording methods. Her last album, 1993's When I Was a Boy, came together in fits and starts over three years, crossing oceans and continents before she finished the vocals alone in the front room of her Toronto home.

"It was too long," she says, "and this (recording) was partly a reaction to that." The musicians Siberry assembled had never been in the same room together, let alone rehearsed, until the first day of recording. It's a testament to the artist's instincts that the combo sounds like they've been jamming for years.

"The first person I asked was the drummer Brian Blade, who I'd seen with Danny Lanois," Siberry says. "I asked him to suggest a bass player (Christopher Thomas) because it's especially important that they be super-connected. They had played together quite a bit with Joshua Redman."

Pianist Ray plays for Lyle Lovett, "which is almost a jazz band," Siberry says. Trumpet-player Travers-Smith proved to be a great score.

"He was just engineering a film score for me," Siberry explains. "He said he played trumpet, so it was a crap shoot, but he's fantastic. Unbelievable. And then he ended up recording it and engineering it and mixing it.

"A lot of these songs were just in my head," she continues. "I would hear it, but I couldn't even write it down or do a demo, and had to hopefully find the right musicians.

"Tim was key because he's playing piano. It's pretty spooky the way we're connected. When I felt where the notes should move, he would go there. It's strange to connect on a really deep level with someone you hardly know."

The spontaneous combustion is all the more impressive when you listen to "Oh My My," the final 20-minute composition that weaves together spoken word, nursery-rhymes and Siberry-style ethereal poetry, and a song she had hoped to release on a separate CD but which is instead separated from the first nine songs by a two-minute pause.

"The song has so many different pieces," she says. "So on a different day my voice would carry the information better. Mostly I would try to do it in one long pass, and because it was separate from the rest of the record, it sort of changed the parameters and had harmonies and overdubs, which I don't really have on the other songs."

Siberry ended up recording most of her vocals later, but the players' parts remained intact. "Anything I tried to fix or change seemed to be resisting," she says. "It just stopped feeling as good. So I left it pretty well the way it was.

"When we were playing, I didn't know what the words were yet," she continues. "So a lot of it was just sounds. And then later, as I did the vocals, when I would deviate too much from what my original very coarse track was, it would resist also. So the vocals are pretty well exactly the melodies that were created at the time.

"Then most of the lyrics were done in one take that I did later, just to try and keep it in the same spirit. I didn't know what the songs were about until they were over. So it feels pretty three-day-ish."

Relearning her own improvisations was often a tricky task. "Some of them, like `Begat Begat' and `See the Child,' were very hard to sing," Siberry says.

"And so if I was thinking too hard it wouldn't work out. The melodies were created once, during that three-day session. So it took a while to return to the original letting-go. I knew these difficult changes well enough so that when I finally recorded it, I could be spontaneous and forget about it."

It's been a long time, years in fact, since Siberry has gone out on a full fledged tour with a band. "It's just not where I was space-wise," explains the singer, who did a solo tour of spoken word and film and music after her last album.

"But I felt it wouldn't be right for me to go out alone," she continues. "Now everything's fine and in full force to perform and take new steps and really do it."

[Story captions: photo: "Jane Siberry shares the songs of her 7th album, Maria, tomorrow at Danforth Music Hall"]