Singer Rebecca Martin, who grew up in Rumford Point, achieved early success on the international jazz scene with her 2000 Fresh Sound CD, “Middlehope.” Full of unique takes on vintage tunes, the disc made many top 10 lists during that year.
Also a fine songwriter who tends toward a folk-pop concept in her own compositions, Martin went on to release a couple of well-received discs of original material. But an appearance on one of bandleader-drummer Paul Motian’s “On Broadway” discs in 2006 kept us mindful of how good she was at making those old songs sound new again.
“When I Was Long Ago,” an intimate trio recording, marks a return for Martin to that golden songbook of Gershwin, Ellington, Strayhorn, Rodgers and others. The album title definitely gets at the singular way Martin can mix an “old soul” sensibility with her distinctive vocal sound. It’s arguably her best work to date.
Backed by her husband, Larry Grenadier, on bass and Blue Hill native Bill McHenry on saxes, Martin takes on the songwriting pantheon.
Revealing a preference for torchy ballads, her renditions of “But Not For Me” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” highlight George and Ira Gershwin’s playful but sublime way of mixing words and music to convey a deep romanticism.
Martin and Grenadier duet on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” in a version that reveals the genius of the man who legendarily collaborated with Duke Ellington. The rich, up-close recording, credited to engineer James Farber, brings the talented couple directly into your listening space.
Richard Rodgers’ “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” is given a welcome mid-tempo reading with Martin vocalizing gently near the end of an impeccable McHenry solo.
There’s much more on this disc of classic material, which may soon be thought of itself as a classic itself. It is that good.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.