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Renee Fleming

HAUNTED HEART • Renee Fleming

Opera singers attempting pop or jazz has been largely a, shall we say, fraught experience. The soaring high notes, wide vibrato, and melodramatic emotion that work so well for Verdi never fail to seem incongruous, on a scale ranging from unsettling to hilarious, when applied to a tune normally associated with John Lennon or Billie Holiday. Thus it was with trepidation that I approached soprano Renee Fleming's release, Haunted Heart. As someone who admires most the minimalist stylings of jazz singers like Chet Baker, Shirley Horn, and Helen Merrill, the thought of a Bel Canto approach to Bill W. Carey and Carl Fischer's already tear-jerking standard "You've Changed" practically brought tears of another sort to these eyes. Imagine my surprise when, listening to the opening, title track, my own heart almost stopped.

Singing an octave below her normal range, and accompanied by only the super-sensitive piano of Fred Hersch, Ms. Fleming enters with a husky whisper that is miles more Cassandra Wilson than Joan Sutherland, a sound that raises instant chicken skin every time I hear it and is, dare I say it, sexy. (A term I don't remember ever being applied to Ms. Sutherland.) She goes on to deliver a performance of this darkly romantic tune that is dynamic without turning remotely histrionic. Bill Frisell's quirky guitar style (including some backwards looping) joins Hirsch's piano for a rendition of Joni Mitchell's "River" that Fleming makes uniquely her own.

The joy of discovery continues with her version of "When Did You Leave Heaven?"--a song recorded by everyone from Guy Lombardo to Bob Dylan--that manages to be simultaneously jaunty, and again, sexy. (Well, so much singing these days isn't–don't you think?) On this track, singing over just Frisell's fingerpicked guitar Ms. Fleming at one point turns a vocal fillip on "human" that embodies the entire meaning of the word.

This level of artistry continues through the whole work with only a couple of minor missteps. Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour," though well performed by Fleming, Hersch, and Frisell, seems somehow out of place--not in the weight class of the other song choices. Too, "In My Life" embodies the trouble I have with jazzy interpretations of Beatles tunes. Their intrinsic rhythm seems too essentially Caucasian to work well with the usual elastic approach of jazz. (Ann Dyer's brilliant, deconstructionist take on the Revolver record is a notable exception.)

Yet Haunted Heart is by no stretch of the imagination a jazz record, nor does it claim to be. For all the talk of her college years performing jazz, Renee Fleming is not a jazz singer. Her time is excellent but far from the fluid thing possessed by the best jazz vocalists. No, Haunted Heart is merely a great record of music. The opera singer provides a purity of voice and technique rarely heard in either pop or jazz circles, where emotionally-moving eccentricities of character hopefully take up the slack. Instead what we get here is the power of a magnificent instrument channeled to service exactly what the song requires--no more, no less.

That Renee Fleming sounds completely at home singing "Answer Me" over Frisell's fractured, abstract accompaniment is a tribute to her versatility; that she is happy to sing Mahler's "Liebst du um Schonheit" over his guitar stylings reveals her openness. That the whole project is such a success speaks to sheer power of trans-genre music combined with a spectacular singer.
• Michael Ross

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