By Andrew Gilbert
San Francisco jazz singer Madeline Eastman has spent the past two decades teaching the intricacies of the art form at the Stanford Jazz Workshop and JazzCamp West. Her new album, “A Quiet Thing” (MadKat Records), offers a master class in how to slow things down.
Eastman came of age on the Bay Area jazz scene in the 1980s, inspired by great musical storytellers like Carmen McRae and Etta Jones. She made a name for herself as a tough and fearless performer, unafraid of mixing it up at torrid tempos with some of the music’s most formidable improvisers. But over the years she’s learned how to distill all that intensity, and pour it into emotionally taut balladry. A riveting duo session with Portland pianist Randy Porter, “A Quiet Thing” features 14 songs without a single up tempo number.
On those rare occasions when a jazz singer decides to focus exclusively on ballads, it’s usually in an orchestral setting, with lush arrangements providing a variety of textures. Porter, a consummate musician who got his start on the San Diego jazz scene, is more a fellow explorer than an accompanist. His probing dialogues with Eastman make strings and horns feel superfluous, particularly when they strip a pop classic like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Alfie” down to essentials.
Part of what makes “A Quiet Thing” so rewarding is that Eastman avoids the usual American Songbook fair. A dedicated song sleuth, she offers several invaluable discoveries, such as the Alec Wilder/Loonis McGlohom gem “All of Us In It,” a persuasive paean to the pleasures of wedlock, and Victor Feldman and Tommy Wolf’s rapturous “A Face Like Yours.”
When she does tackle a standard, Eastman turns it into something startling and new, like her bruised and wary version of “Pick Yourself Up.” Usually delivered as a jaunty affirmation of resilience, the song turns into a spiritual odyssey as she folds it into Donnie McClurkin’s contemporary gospel anthem “We Fall Down.”
“A Quiet Thing” isn’t Eastman’s first run at a ballad program. Back in 2001 she released “Bare,” a duo project with the late great Los Angeles pianist Tom Garvin. It’s a marvelous session, but the new album finds Eastman delving deeper than ever before, spurred on by Porter’s bright but oblique harmonic choices. She closes the album with Brian Wilson’s soul-bearing prayer “God Only Knows,” almost whispering the abject lyric.
Some listeners might find themselves hankering for more rhythmic variety, or improvisational fireworks. Eastman sets plenty of sparks flying, but she never makes a big gesture when a subtle motion serves her vision. The album’s title track, Kander and Ebb’s “It’s A Quiet Thing,” practically serves as a manifesto, an ode to the power of understatement. I won’t be surprised if “A Quiet Thing” makes a big, resounding impact.