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  • Jonathan Widran

LISA RICH, Highwire

Here’s the fascinating and sublime thing about jazz: a beautiful voice telling soulful, insightful stories with the perfect swinging trio can resonate across generations, almost like an eternal caress of the heart. And with sprinkles of modern technology updating the sonic quality, a recording that should have been released over 30 years ago can still engage, delight and inspire decades later via a transcendent fusion of real time and timelessness. I thought I believed all this before, but Lisa Rich’s exquisitely rendered, alternately romantic/introspective and supple/lively (and perfectly titled) Highwire drove it home like no other recording I’ve ever enjoyed.

Had I heard this brilliant collection of unique vocal interpretations of songs, known and obscure, co-composed by icons like Chick Corea, Ornette Coleman and Ralph Towner without knowing the personal story which delayed it from its originally intended 1987 release, it wouldn’t have mattered. It is still a revelation, an album that’s easy to love and listen to repeatedly (no matter the colorful back story), and perhaps even more exciting because this veteran artist is like a new shining light on my radar.

See, I didn’t get hip to jazz until the late 80s, a few years after she established herself as a formidable presence with her first two albums, Listen Here (1983) and Touch of the Rare with Clare Fischer (1985). I didn’t know that she performed groundbreaking concerts in China (the country’s first jazz events since 1949) and India, her grants from the National Endowment of the Arts or her performances at The Kennedy Center and Smithsonian Institution as an artist in residence. Cheered along by mentors like Ethel Ennis and Mark Murphy, she worked with everyone from Michael Wolff to John Pattitucci.

Her story since this early heyday could be seen as tragic, but is better understood as triumphant. Though a spinal fusion in her early 20s allowed her to sing full time, she was sidelined from performing by a congenital back disease. During her retirement from the limelight, she found another way to impart her musical gifts as a teacher, doing workshops and private lessons.

We’re blessed with Highwire (which was released in June 2019) because of a promise Lisa made to her husband Robert. If she ever felt well enough, she would finish and release it. Returning to the studio where the music was recorded, with the same co-producer and engineer (Bob Dawson), she rolled through the 24 tracks she recorded to find the tunes. Dawson remixed and mastered it – with less reverb and better balance than before - and the 10-track collection was ready to roll. Lisa played her first show in decades in her current hometown of Washington, DC in November with longtime musician friends who were like family. She says, “The pictures were hung with care painted by my late mom and the lighting kept defaulting to magenta, matching my mother’s palette so I thought she might have been there.”

If you’re so inclined, you might sense that sort of divine, otherworldly blessing as you journey joyfully with Lisa from the playful and sassy, symbolically uplifting Corea and Tony Cohan penned opener “Highwire the Aerialist” through the deeply felt, soul searching eloquence of “The Silence of a Candle,” performed as a lush, improvisation filled duet with pianist Marc Copland. We slowly start to sense that though perhaps not originally recorded with that intention, the tracks on Highwire truly build a narrative of an artistic soul breaking free. That’s a message that hits home more than ever considering the global events of 2020. It’s almost as if the universe knows when great music needs to be heard.

As much as we can view Highwire as Lisa’s Renaissance as an artist, we can also appreciate it as a showcase for the lesser known magic of Corea, who once gave her a trove of songs he had written with Cohan. The other Corea-Cohan gems Lisa brings to light are two lovely, charming and lighthearted waltzes – including the never before recorded “Contessa” and “Stardancer,” which includes a line that should make jazz fusion fans go “hmm”: “Seems like return to forever.” There’s also a sprightly and colorful, free-spirited tribute to jazz piano legend “Bud Powell” and the Latin-tinged, boisterous and buoyant The Jinn.” One hopes that Lisa’s been sitting on some other Corea gems and she will record them in the near future.

Highlights beyond the Chick material include an exquisite poetic medley (with pianist David Kane) of Towner’s “Celeste” with “Prelude to a Kiss,” a sweetly melancholy piano-vocal meditation exploring Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” the dreamy and romantic “Songbird” and the sweet, ultimately hopeful “We’ll Be Together Again” – a particularly meaningful song that meets our global moment and inspires the sense of optimism we all need. Lisa’s life, and this recording, are testaments to the human and artistic spirit, and as such this recording inspires in ways that she couldn’t have known it would back in the day. Thank you, Lisa, for all your tremendous gifts, and stay well.


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