ure it's one of those dreaded double live albums and, yes, there's a bit of a gimmick at play and, okay, I'll admit that it's something that at first glance seems to be an arranger's album. But, unlike almost anything you'll see advertisements for, Jacqui Naylor's Live East/West contains far more rewards than it promises. Naylor and her groups provide a new twist on the mash-up (don't groan) that alone makes the album worthwhile. Assuming, of course, you don't notice her gorgeous voice.
Naylor likes to sing a jazz standard over a rock instrumental, or vice versa. Since the songs are performed unassisted by technology, she calls this idea "acoustic smashing." The best example of this technique comes during "Once in a Lifetime," on which Naylor sings the Talking Heads hit while the band plays a strong version of the Weather Report's "Birdland" (by Joe Zawinul). This performance demonstrates the smash/mash-up/whatever at its finest. If you weren't paying attention, you'd swear that bassline had always been in the Heads' song. On multiple listens, I found myself thinking twice on what music came from where, despite "Birdland" having a memorable melody and "Lifetime" being my favorite new wave song. On this performance, you can see the skill of arranging, as well as the smart ear and creative thinking that we usually associate with DJs.
Later in the album, Naylor doesn't fare so well. When the piano breaks into a quickly recognized rendition of "Back in Black," the crowd claps some before Naylor sings that oft-covered opening line: "My funny valentine..." At this moment, the acoustic smashing technique that sounded so smart on "Once in a Lifetime" (and also on a jazz-blues "For What It's Worth") reverts to the cliché sound Z-Trip uses with such success (save for live shows, where AC/DC still sparks the crowd). The track sounds less like a careful interpretation and more like a novelty act, if that's the appropriate term, for something several years out of date.
But it's important to not get caught up in the fun and cleverness of Naylor and company's acoustic smashing. After all, that approach can only yield so much before it turns to formula. Fortunately, Naylor has the voice to carry a show on her own. Equally suited for jazz or blues (and probably other styles as well), her voice has fullness without sacrificing litheness. Her range won't astound you, but she does command her territory with a rich sound throughout (there's no loss of air or tone going down or up the scales, as happens with so many American Idol finalists who will undoubtedly sell more records than Naylor).
For the most part, her phrasing works well, but she doesn't stretch herself. Occasionally, as in the chorus to "Once in a Lifetime," she exaggerates holds in inappropriate places, but those miscues stem from someone too invested in expression rather than too careful in craft, which is a worthy trade.
While many of her songs are standards or smashes, Naylor does perform original compositions on about half the tracks. Right now, that's a good ratio for her—because her songs don't show a marked drop in quality but also don't stand out—but I expect her to stick to more originals on her following studio albums (as she did on her previous disc, 2003's Shelter). "Don't Let the Bastard Get You Down", co-written with multi-instrumentalist Art Khu, provides the double-album's highlight (including her takes on standards). The main riff grows out of funk, but always keep one branch reaching for jazz. Her vocals call for a woman to shake fairy tale dreams in order to see the mistreatment she suffers lovingly from a subtly abusive man. The guitar solo draws a line; the final verse throws humor into an otherwise serious situation. Naylor has the directness and sincerity to merge the two moods.
That's a lot to hear and enjoy, and you know what? I haven't even gotten to the second disc yet...