Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Laura Crema & Bill Coon: “StringSongs” (2022) CD Review

Vocalist Laura Crema and guitarist Bill Coon, both based in Vancouver, British Columbia, have joined forces to create an absolutely wonderful album of original material. Titled StringSongs, this album has a gentle vibe, mixing jazz and folk elements. The first time I listened to these tracks it was fairly early in the morning, and these songs provided a perfect way to ease into the day, to put me in the right frame of mind to face the world. Laura Crema’s voice is one of warmth and experience, and Bill Coon’s guitar work is melodic and beautiful. Joining the duo on this album are Peggy Lee on cello, and Jon Bentley on tenor saxophone.

Though the album focuses on original material, it opens with “Arrow And The Song,” an adaptation of the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Interestingly, this song began as an instrumental piece composed by Bill Coon before Laura Crema brought the poem in. The poem’s closing lines really stand out here, “And the song, from beginning to end,/I found again in the heart of a friend.” And that connection is what it’s all about. Following those lines, there is an instrumental section, where Bill Coon delivers some excellent work on guitar, a solo that itself seems to sing. The poem is then repeated after that guitar section. That’s followed by “Blue Mist.” Jon Bentley joins the duo on saxophone, offering some nice work at the beginning, helping to set the tone. This is a song about natural beauty which can be obscured by our own misery and troubles. The last several years have been full of troubles for most people, and it is important to be able to still be affected and impacted by the beauty of the world. The only traveling my girlfriend and I did in 2020 was a road trip to Colorado, and on the way back we went to Arches National Park. The incredible beauty of that landscape broke through our own worries and fears, its impact so strong we still talk about it two years later. “Nature’s rich glow of colors/Are all around for us to share/Yet I cannot see them/Through a blue, blue mist of tears.” Jon Bentley’s work on saxophone is moving, expressing that sorrow and that desire to break through. But this music itself might be able to do just that for those who listen.

“StringSong” has a lighter sound from the beginning, with the playful and sweet scat and guitar working in conjunction. In fact, there are no lyrics to this one, yet Laura Crema’s vocal work is just as eloquent as a poem. This track also features some fantastic guitar work. And the presence of cello helps to make this one of my personal favorites. This track raises my spirits each time I listen to it. That’s followed by “Heart Flame,” a song of loss. There is a strong sense of loneliness, even before these lines: “My heart breaks for you, my sweet/Why have you left me here alone, so alone/It makes no sense why you are gone/Your smile so bright and your voice so strong.” When the cello comes in, you might expect the tone to take on a deeper melancholy, but the opposite is true. Perhaps it is simply because the presence of another instrument removes some of the sense of loneliness, and replaces it with acceptance, even hope as the track progresses. And when the saxophone enters, the despair then seems to have nearly entirely lifted. And later the word “laughter” stands out in the phrase “echoes of her laughter.” And it is that word that we are left with. Then “Frolic” has more of a bossa nova vibe. Here Laura Crema sings of “carefree days,” of “summer days,” and that is exactly the feel of this song.

“August Blue” is another of the disc’s highlights. It is a pretty, jazzy folk song featuring some gorgeous work on cello and some wonderful lyrics. “As her eyes flutter open/It’s clear she’s alone/In a place dark and soulless/Wishing she were home/The clouds travel swiftly/The rain still is due/And she knows summer can’t last/August blue.” The cello seems to warn of the coming changes. But just as the seasons return, there is the sense that whatever might have been lost can be recovered, and the song concludes on an optimistic note. Then “Sweet Embrace/Empty Space” takes us to that moment when we emerge from dreams and have a sweet second or two before remembering that a loved one is gone, that moment when the empty space next to us becomes everything. I can’t imagine starting the day with that kind of pain, with a need that cannot be met. It is difficult enough to begin a day when my love and I are apart, but to know that it will be like that from then on would be too much to bear. “Feel your touch as I wake/I reach out for your hand/Breathing in, breathing out/My smile fades as I see/You are not there/Empty space.”

“Happy Place” is a much lighter piece, with Laura Crema again offering some sweet scat. The guitar work also has a freer feel, almost like dancing. If “Sweet Embrace/Empty Space” got you down, this song will lift you right back up. It even ends with Laura saying, “Yeah” and Bill laughing. That’s followed by “Whisper Me,” the last track listed on the CD case. Check out these lines: “Whisper me your darkest dreams/Come to me and let your secrets find/A place where no one ever goes/Trust me with the words you cannot say/And I will find a special place/To hold them in my heart.” This is one of the album’s most interesting tracks, not just because of the lyrics, but because of the way they are delivered. In addition, there are some wonderful instrumental sections. I especially love that work on cello. There is one last track that is not listed on the CD case, a pretty cover of Bing Crosby’s “I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You.” The music begins approximately thirty seconds into the track, and they start their version with the line “I need your love so badly,” as Chet Baker did. This is a really good rendition.

CD Track List

  1. Arrow And The Song
  2. Blue Mist
  3. StringSong
  4. Heart Flame
  5. Frolic
  6. August Blue
  7. Sweet Embrace/Empty Space
  8. Happy Place
  9. Whisper Me
  10. I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You

String Songs was released on July 22, 2022.

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