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Barbara Sfraga – Oh, What a Thrill
Naxos Jazz
by Chuck Obuchowski

    The jazz market has lately been flooded with recordings by aspiring vocalists, in the wake of successes enjoyed by a select few – most notably Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson -- who have managed to catch the pop world’s attention.
    Given the current glut, one might glance at the song titles on Barbara Sfraga’s debut disc and dismiss this as just another "safe" collection of tried-&-true standards. Oh, what a mistake! Sfraga, a 15-year veteran of the New York nightclub scene, refreshes the familiar material with enticing new approaches, molds some unlikely covers into vehicles for bold improvisation and throws in a few provocative originals for good measure.
    Oh, What a Thrill cops its name from a line in the 50s rock & roll hit "Great Balls of Fire," here slowed to a sultry crawl. Sfraga’s purr-to-a-scream delivery might well make Jerry Lee Lewis, the song’s most famous interpreter, blush. Guitarist Bruce Saunders adds to the seductive mood by firing off strings of gritty blues licks, while bassist John Hebert raises the temperature of this slow burner almost to the boiling point.
    The songstress displays both her vocal gymnastics and clever wordplay on Saunders’ furious bopper "Slug It Up." Her poignant kiss-off lyrics match his lightning-fast string picking, note for note. The guitarist later engages in superb cat-and-mouse soloing with pianist David Berkman (who performed admirably at a WWUH fundraising concert last November).
    Sfraga and her band of merry pranksters offer several inspired new arrangements of standard material, ranging from a lovely bossa reading of "Invitation" to their slightly funked-up version of "Angel Eyes," complete with bits and pieces of "Sunshine of Your Love"...who woulda thunk it?
    Fred Hersch, widely acknowledged as one of the most lyrical baby-boomer jazz pianists, joins Sfraga for two gently swinging duets, and dominates the album’s closing track, "Song for My Mother." The latter, an impassioned portrayal of Sfraga’s spiritual journey, also carries a universal message for anyone who has experienced the subtle strength of a mother’s undying love. In a lighter vein, Barbara enlists the masterful vocal talents (and lyrics) of Mark Murphy for a whimsical call-and-response romp through "I’ll Call You," a lover’s lament to his/her "ex."
    The Naxos label has been releasing acclaimed classical recordings for many years but has only recently delved into the jazz realm. Mike Nock, a New Zealand born keyboardist who has been performing professionally for over four decades, is at the helm of Naxos Jazz. For more information about Oh, What a Thrill and other Naxos releases, visit the labels website: naxosusa.com.

Copyright©WWUH: March/April Program Guide, 2000

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