CD REVIEW: Joanna Wallfisch with Dan Tepfer - The Origin of Adjustable Things / #IWD2015

Joanna Wallfisch with Dan Tepfer - The Origin of Adjustable Things
(Sunnyside Communications SSC 1405. CD review by Andy Boeckstaens)

2012 was quite a year for the young English musician Joanna Wallfisch. She earned a Master’s in Jazz Performance from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, moved to New York, and released her first album, Wild Swan. Since then, she has been honing her art, working in the worlds of circus and dance, and writing lyrics for film music.

Unlike the ensemble effort of her recording debut, The Origin of Adjustable Things is a duet set. Her partner is the Paris-born American Dan Tepfer, who has won several prestigious awards in recent years and is perhaps best known for his work with Lee Konitz. Tepfer’s role here is essentially a supportive one, although his presence is felt in crystalline piano work and the use of other keyboards including a Wurlitzer and a Mellotron.

The majority of these generally quiet, introspective songs are from Wallfisch’s pen, and - whether or not they are autobiographical – they are sincere and sound intensely personal. Some are thought-provokingly enigmatic. Her voice, often etherially multi-tracked in the background, is refreshingly transparent and her diction immaculate.

From the opening This Is How You Make Me Feel - which has an innocent joyfulness and wordless vocalising that mingles perfectly with a repetitive piano figure - you know that something out of the ordinary is in store. Satin Grey is impressionistic, and the attractively mobile melody and wistful, dark lyrics of Satellite work very well together. Time Doesn’t Play Fair is about lost love and disillusionment. Brighton Beach - in the composer’s words, “nostalgic, playful, childlike, silly and true” - has Tepfer on pump organ, and Wallfisch fashions simple motifs on piano. Couplets and rhymes abound, but the writer seems more concerned with the meaning of the words than with poetic perfection.

The four selections that are not by Wallfisch span several decades and express a wide variety of emotions. Wild is the Wind and Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren are extremely moving, and both contain deft and imaginative interludes by Tepfer. Of the latter, Wallfisch explains that “the lyrics are not easy to sing or to convey.” The same might be said of Radiohead’s wonderful Creep, where the vocals become louder and more expansive, yet Wallfisch's control remains immaculate. Patricia Barber springs to mind.

The album ends with a truly classic song, and Wallfisch and Tepfer do it full justice. The subject of Never Let Me Go relates a brief indiscretion, and the line “You wouldn’t leave me, would you?” (a minor change to Ray Evans’ original lyric) is delivered, half-spoken, with a heartbreaking starkness that implies more than a smidgeon of doubt. It’s devastatingly bleak.

The Origin of Adjustable Things is certainly one of the most intruigingly-titled CDs I have heard. More importantly, it contains a lot of beautiful music, performed with seriousness, sensitivity and a rare restraint.

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