Vocalist Susie Meissner’s “I Wish I Knew” | Available July 17 via LydianJazz Records
Vocalist Susie Meissner Convenes a Band of Philadelphia Greats to Explore the American Songbook on Her Swinging and Tender Fourth Album
I Wish I Knew, Due Out July 17 via LydianJazz Records
Features John Swana, Larry McKenna, Lee Smith and Byron Landham as Well as Longtime Collaborators Ken Peplowski, John Shaddy and Paul Meyers
Vocalist Susie Meissner opens her fourth album, I Wish I Knew, with Curtis Lewis’ “The Great City.” The choice works for purely musical reasons, as an upbeat swinger that gets things off to a finger-snapping start; it also fits in perfectly her love of the more obscure corners of the classic American songbook.
But the song also serves to pay tribute to Philadelphia, the city that’s embraced Meissner and become her professional home base over the last decade. I Wish I Knew, due out July 17, 2020 through LydianJazz Records, is the singer’s second release featuring a stellar group of Philly-based musicians: trumpeter John Swana, saxophonist Larry McKenna, bassist Lee Smith and drummer Byron Landham.
In addition, Meissner invited some longtime collaborators from outside Philadelphia: pianist John Shaddy, guitarist Paul Meyers and master clarinetist Ken Peplowski. Since the release of her 2009 debut, I’ll Remember April, Meissner has worked with a host of gifted jazz musicians, including Martin Wind, Brian Lynch, Wycliffe Gordon, Joe Magnarelli and Matt Wilson, among others. But she discovered a spiritual home in the City of Brotherly Love.
“From my first gig in Philly I was hooked,” Meissner says. “There’s just a different feeling in Philadelphia. It exerts a real gravitational pull. It’s such a great city to play; I love working there and I love working with these musicians.”
To be clear, “The Great City” wasn’t written about Philadelphia. Still, the lyric captures the friction between the magnetic allure and daunting loneliness that characterizes any major metropolis, Philly included – maybe Philly especially, given the town’s brusque reputation. In Meissner’s rendition, the charm of the place defiantly wins out, her gleaming adoration winning out even as she warns against its “cold, cruel stone.”
“When you’re in, it’s hard to get back out” is the song’s message, but Meissner hardly sounds eager to escape. She isn’t a Philadelphian, by birth or by residence – the former honor goes to Buffalo, the latter to New Jersey. Yet when it’s time to take the stage you’re most likely to find her at Chris’ Jazz Café, the club that she fondly refers to as the “heart and soul of jazz in Philly.” She’s played there upwards of 35 times over the past decade, and it’s a room that her elite ensemble considers a home base. “I wanted to capture the feeling that we create every time we have a gig together,” Meissner explains. “This album really represents how much we enjoy and respect each other’s talents.”
The album’s title, I Wish I Knew, is aptly chosen for these uncertain times, though Meissner had something a bit more personal in mind. Her intentions were drawn from the song’s lyric, which expresses the essential unknowability between any two people. The vulnerability, the wary hopefulness, the wistful longing: all are achingly rendered in the pairing of Meissner’s yearning vocal and Peplowski’s eloquent clarinet.
“That was one take,” Meissner says enthusiastically. “We decided to record that song at the last second, and it was magic. When you experience something like that, your insides start shaking. It’s so creative and so in the moment. That’s why we used that title for the album; I hoped that the tenderness and feeling of ‘I Wish I Knew’ would translate to everything else.”
The diverse repertoire on I Wish I Knew ranges from familiar standards like “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” and “It Could Happen to You” to classics known more for their instrumental jazz interpretations such as “Alfie” and “Poinciana.” Others dig deeper into the Songbook to dust off some neglected gems. Whatever the source, a spectrum of styles and approaches drove Meissner’s selection process. “I listen to everything,” she says. “I wanted different styles, different genres, and different authors, because the guys in the group are storytellers.”
Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” spotlights Peplowski’s gift for summoning the ghosts of jazz eras past while speaking in the vital language of the moment. His solo is parried by the darting jabs of Paul Meyer’s guitar. Meyer and Meissner later duet on a mesmerizing rendition of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” combining to hint at the lingering shades of bittersweet memory.
“It Could Happen to You” is graced by a summit meeting between two virtuoso veterans, Peplowski and Philly living legend Larry McKenna. Their fluid lines weave together gracefully but powerfully, buoyed by the expert rhythm section of Smith and Landham. McKenna’s burnished tenor sound is especially magical on ballads, as vividly evidenced on “Alfie” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Meissner sets the tone on both, the compassionate encouragement of “Alfie,” the forlorn ruefulness of “Goodbye,” which the saxophonist expertly carries forward into his captivating solos.
“I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” offers a tender dialogue between Meissner and pianist John Shaddy, her accompanist in song as in life. The two are well accustomed to each other’s voices, resulting in an airily intimate reading with John Swana’s plaintive trumpet providing the inner monologue to the couple’s sonic embrace. The “wings on your heels” mentioned in “Hello Young Lovers” is wonderfully illustrated by the floating dance between the winger and Swana’s light-footed flugelhorn.
Swana brings a more offbeat vibe to the session via his use of the Electric Valve Instrument (EVI), a mutated electronic horn that looks like a cross between a trumpet and a surge protector and which evokes synthetic, even alien, tones. It provides an unsettling dizziness to Meissner’s intoxicating “You Go To My Head,” and is an essential element in the exotic jungle of sounds conjured by the ensemble’s take on “Poinciana.” More than any other, that piece captures the Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection, as the more equitable amendment adds) of the recording date; the outpouring of fellowship from the entire line-up was unplanned but ecstatically welcome.
The album ends, appropriately enough, with “The Party’s Over.” The best thing about a great party, though, is that it supplies the joyful memories that tide one over until the next get-together. In the group of artists she’s convened for I Wish I Knew, Meissner has discovered a warm band of fellow celebrants for whom she plays the perfect hostess. Fortunately for those of us who weren’t there with them, this album extends an open and welcoming invite to bask in those vibrantly emotional moments.
Susie Meissner · I Wish I Knew
LydianJazz Records · Release Date: July 17, 2020
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