Carrie Wicks’ ‘Barely There’: It’s not pretty but it’s pretty good jazz
Carrie Wicks flies under the radar under the bigger names and flashier associations in a city that never gives an inch. But the Seattle singer is worth a listen in her sophomore album, the 2012 gem Barely There.
She’s certainly different, the way Lady Day was different in the 1930s. And that’s a wonderful quality, especially in the been-there-heard-that world of jaded jazz. Her voice isn’t very pretty, but it’s uniquely hers and no one else’s, and it sneaks up on you, slipping into the cracks and crevices of a song’s previously unimagined portals.
In her first album, I’ll Get Around To It , Wicks showed her difference in the eclectic but deeply informed music selections (including a promising compositional ability). What she did with the music earned her national attention from critics and a place on top of the JazzWeek charts.
In Barely There, she does it again with her top-shelf selection of songs — eight of them originals with bassist writing partner Ken Nottingham (Creeping Time) — and personnel, recent Earshot Jazz Golden Ear winner Bill Anschell (piano), drummer Byron Vannoy, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Hans Teuber, bassist Jeff Johnson, and Pearl Django’s accordionist David Lange.
The album is straight-up jazz, with resplendent solos and considered vocals, but she also brings a quirky indie-pop tone (the kind of music Daria and Jane would groove to while watching Sick, Sad World) that could easily cross over to the self-actualizing, post-millennial quarter-lifers shunning Facebook and Twitter over cups of Cafecito.
It’s not that Wicks could care less about the music. It’s just not in her style to get all worked up, and earnestly emo, which is her saving grace. This is a vocalist who knows how to cut through the crap, get to the heart of the matter, spend enough time inside to make her point — and bring you in with her spare, almost regal moments of clarity.
“Small but Elegant Place” epitomizes this understated, but striking singer. And she wrote it too. The song, accompanied by the great Anschell on piano — in a striking but understated narrative all his own — describes someone who doesn’t need much to swing to the live jazz music going on onstage: “Just wanna be in the moment with a quiet piano and bass, bread and butter, wine and cheese, a small but elegant place. Off in a darkened corner where I can be myself and sing, away from the glaring spotlight when I can close my eyes and swing.”
That’s exactly what she does all over this “small but elegant place” she’s created with her band of musicians. Her voice is as exquisitely spare, humble, grounded, and real as her needs; there is never any affected putting on of airs, or an embarrassing, over-abundance of embellishments in some half-baked attempt to be what one is not. She somehow manages to sing as if she’s doing a poetry reading in a room full of friends, conversationally matter of fact, yet meditative.
Another original song, “Dandelion Gone,” really underlines her scattershot poetry, capturing the fragile, willowy “white fluff in the sky” threads of lyrical to melodic against a light Latin beat. She even dabbles in a bit of unselfconscious scatting here that works. Anschell takes over again, playing what sounds like triple lines, amplifying his sound effects to that of a layered orchestra. Teuber’s haiku saxophone underscores the lightness of being of the dandelion florets.
The songs not written by Carrie Wicks and Ken Nottingham fit right in, largely due to the quietly charming vocalist’s original treatment. “Laura” by Johnny Mercer and David Raksin might as well be an original tune, thanks to Bill Anschell’s lush, flourished piano and Wicks’ wispy vocals. Anschell’s solo especially feels comforting and warm, as if he’s literally wrapping the listener in a quilt on a cold, winter’s day before a fire.
“Winter Skin,” an original composition, really showcases Wicks’ tendency to lapse behind the musical beats a shade — Joni Mitchell-esque — reflectively, almost defiantly questioning the authority of those beats, without losing her place. She entices the musicians to want to catch up to her in an oddly seductive way, reinventing the groove in a swing all her own. Her hypnotic, wistful scatting here proves that slick doesn’t always get the job done.
While Wicks would never be accused of perpetrating pretty or perky vocalism along the lines of a Jackie Ryan, Sara Gazarek, or Karrin Allyson, she can sing her brand of uncommonly striking when she wants to and when the song calls for it. Such is the case in “Veinte Años [20 Years]” by early 20th century Cuban trova artist Maria Teresa Vera.
Wicks’ career formed somewhere in between the violin lessons in Summit, N.J., the piano lessons in Dorset, VT, band and church choir, the Doors and Michael Jackson, and a significant amount of time hibernating in the woods of Indianola, WA. One day, Wicks took a jazz workshop class at Seattle Central Community College nearby to feed an undeniable, burning interest, and it was all over. Ten-plus years later, Wicks found herself still going strong, having performed with some of the best Northwest artists (Venus d’Bop with Aria Prame and Kim Rushing, Billy Brandt), around, in some of the most talked-about/hard-to-break-in venues, from Egan’s and Lucid, to Tula’s, Columbia City Theater, and Triple Door.
Carrie Wicks’ voice isn’t velvety smooth glass — unless it’s broken glass. She goes into the often tentative, traipsing, transparent process of plaintive thinking and feeling (“Through”… “I say to myself it’s not that bad, got my umbrella, coat and shoes, but day after day of nothing but gray, could make any Pollyanna sing the blues”) as easily as tying her shoes when it’s far from easy. Most singers would rather cover up and hide. Stripping away artifice until it’s bare, raw, yet dignified is a characteristic unique to this unique artist. That’s called character. Billie Holiday had it. Jim Morrison did too. So does Carrie Wicks.