Barbara Sfraga
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Barbara Sfraga

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"Album: Under the Moon"

Vocalist Barbara Sfraga has tracked one of the most captivating jazz albums of the year with "Under The Moon." Her vocal work is consistantly inventive and sure, and she demonstrates a distinctive feel for how to unlock a song in a new way. Sfraga benefits from a terrific group of backing musicians, and in particular from her interplay with longtime collaborator/bassist Chris Sullivan. Their bass/vocal duet on Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" is one of the highlights of an album filled with special moments. The title track, written by Angela Bofill, is a dreamy groove that Sfraga settles into with a wonderfully modulated vocal. Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" receives a swinging treatment, calling forth a sweet bass solo from Sullivan and a Sfraga vocal that is so in the pocket that it is virtually a second instrumental solo. Sfraga's debut for A440 is a major-league jazz record. Racked by RYKO. -- BILLBOARD (Critic's Choice) - BILLBOARD MAGAZINE (Critic's Choice)

"Album: "Under the Moon""

Starting the verse of Stardust a capella or shuffling the linear pace on Grown Accustomed (both speedy sambas), Sfraga's bright, thrilling voice bursts each lyric, informing it with velvet intelligence. She never oversings and leaves her band space. As her main foil, John McLean's guitar lends sultry intimacy. - DOWNBEAT (BEST CDS OF 2003)

"Album: "Under the Moon""

Classically trained Long Islander Barbara Sfraga also deserves high marks for her sophomore solo outing, Under the Moon (A440). There's a brazeness to Sfraga that's as arresting as it is invigorating. Never content with traditional readings or staid arrangements, she is a master of bold reinterpretation. Her previous studio disc, Oh, What a Thrill, featured several of her own compositions. Here, there's just one -- the edgily quixotic (and suggestively Frishbergian) Never Walk Away. To filll out the album's nine remaining tracks she calls on everyone from Ellington and Carmichael to Dylan and Angela Bofil. Her Stardust is as bright as the noonday sun, she tackles I've Grown Accustomed to His Face with athletic persipacity, delivers a jagged Prelude to a Kiss that's all right angles and, perhaps most inventive of all, brews a You've Changed that will surely rank as the single most caffeinated version ever recorded. Bottom line? Get out and get Under the Moon. - JAZZ TIMES

"Album: "Under the Moon""

Although Sfraga concentrates on the familiar standards repertoire, she does so in startlingly innovative fashion. Accompanied only by guitar, bass and drums, she quite literally deconstructs tunes such as "Prelude to a Kiss," "Star Dust" and "Mood Indigo," viewing them from constantly shifting, ever-fascinating musical perspectives. She sings "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face" in a floating 5/4 meter, transforms "You've Changed" into a brisk samba and "Sophisticated Lady" into an unexpectedly bright waltz. This is jazz singing at its cutting-edge best, evidence -- far more than you find in Diana Krall's recent studio recordings -- of the art's capacity for creative expansion and evolution. - LOS ANGELES TIMES, (3 1/2 stars)

"Album: "Under the Moon""

At first glance Under the Moon may seem like a conventional standards vocal date, particularly with the inclusion of such songs as "Stardust," "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," and "Prelude to a Kiss." However Barbara Sfraga is an adventurous and chance-taking singer, one who is not shy to take a potential warhorse and make it into something new. Just to name a few examples, on "Stardust" she begins by singing a cappella before interacting with guitarist John McLean, whose tonal variations sound a bit like Bill Frisell. "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," normally a ballad, is taken at an up-tempo pace in 5/4 time. "You've Changed" is given a double-time rhythm and "It Might as Well Be Spring" becomes a fast waltz. This set is full of continuous surprises. Sfraga's appealing voice is flexible enough to interpret both the familiar standards and a few newer songs, including her own "Never Walk Away." She is backed by a sparse, alert, and attentive unit consisting of guitarist McLean, bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan, drummer Paul Wertico, and percussionist Kevin Patrick. Although she is generally in the lead, Sfraga's voice often functions as part of an ensemble, and she proves to be as inventive as most jazz musicians. This is an intriguing set, well worth several listens. - ALL MUSIC GUIDE (4 1/2 stars)

"Live Review"

Barbara Sfraga was finally exposed on August 26. After years of performing in wafting coverups, she wore a bustier at her CD release party, revealing a beautiful expanse of creamy skin. Matched with a floor-length, flowing skirt, her long blonde curls, and a hint of sparkle, she looked like a fairy princess. Her new exposure was also musical, for her latest CD, Under the Moon, for A440 Music Group , reveals her artistic soul more thoroughly than anything she's ever done.

In the five years since her well-received Naxos debut, Oh, What A Thrill, Sfraga has experienced a number of major life changes that have both inspired and supported the growth in her music. For one, she lost a long-term gig that paid her rent but deadened her creativity ‹ a scary event at first, it turned out to be one of those cosmic course corrections that cleared the way for finding her own vision. Always imaginative, Sfraga became freer, more daring, and truer to herself.

She credits her new working band for much of this. Sfraga met Center Search Quest (bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson) while jamming at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem, where she now lives. With their warm encouragement, she's pushing back the boundaries of her talent. This includes breaking out of the standard jazz-singer mold to become what she calls a voicist: blending words and sounds to communicate more directly, on a visceral level. With an increasingly assured gracefulness, she makes every song her own ‹ whether it's Ellington or Dylan, Hoagy Carmichael or Angela Bofil, a ballad, a burner, or anything inbetween.

To watch Sfraga perform is to witness a complete and contagious musical immersion. While her sweet, supple voice conveys the full meaning of a lyric, her body dips and sways, her fingers playing the mic as if it were a horn (or, especially on the torchier tunes, a lover). But unlike some singers, there's no contrivance involved: her movements are organic, part of her natural expressiveness. And unlike some musicians, her improvisations draw the audience closer to her, rather than distancing them with a self-absorbed display. Her sincerity is audible on Under the Moon, but it's absolutely magnetic when she's live.

Sfraga's CD release set at Joe's Pub marks yet another departure for her, since the time constraints leave little room for the generous instrumental solos that characterize her band. (The same thing happened at the J&R Music Festival at City Hall Park the previous Sunday, where she wowed the crowd and put a big grin on the face of Kent Anderson, president of A-440.) Shorter tunes put more focus on her singing, as does the artful use of lighting; part of Joseph Papp's theater complex, the room is very dark and designed as a true performance space, rather than a sociable jazz club. There's also a new touch of drama in the opening ³Stardust,² which begins a cappella on the CD and starts offstage tonight. Sfraga's lovely voice fills the room with ³the purple dust of twilight time²; once she appears in the spotlight, the band hits, and everything goes reggae.

It's a splendid set, a CD buffet enhanced by the piano of Bill Pernice, who does a slamming solo on a newly energetic ³You've Changed.² Playing with tempo is a Sfraga signature ‹ she also extracts all the customary self-pity from the song, turning it into a buoyant, samba-flavored, liberating anthem of good riddance. Mood Indigo is as intimate as a tune ever gets. On the CD, it's a telepathic bass and voice duet; in this performance, Thompson adds well-placed impressionistic flutters as Sfraga sings you ain't been blue/no/no in her clear, whine-free voice.

My favorite selection, Under the Moon and Over the Sky, becomes tropically primal with the addition of Sullivan's indigenous tribal nuances; at Joe's, purple lights along the wall increase the magic. There's a waltzing, unusually joyful Sophisticated Lady and a witty Sfraga original, Never Walk Away, with its bouncy second-line groove, saucy lyrics, and a bit of mischief: the band walking away from her, one by one. Prelude to a Kiss is Monkish and playful, with Sfraga shmuzing the bass and drums in a musical conversation. Unfortunately, the profound and timely Every Grain of Sand is marred by some sudden electronic indigestion, but it stands as the moving, spiritual highlight of the CD. The set ends with a kick-butt version of Tell Me Something Good, with Sullivan rapping a masterful chorus at the end, which hasn't been recorded, but should be. Maybe next time (Sfraga has a four-CD deal with A-440.)

The evening showcases Sfraga's versatility, as well as the advantage of having her own band behind her; Thompson, her fluid and sensitive drummer, is not on the release. (The Chicago-based label chose Paul Wertico, who won a bunch of Grammies with Pat Metheny but, to these ears, didn't really 'get' Sfraga's approach.) At the same time, her music takes on new colors with the contributions of Frisell- - LIVE at JOE'S PUB (All About Jazz)

"Album: "Timelessness Frozen in Time""

Barbara Sfraga has been working with Center Search Quest in some form for the past four years. Here with an expanded lineup -- bass artisan Christopher Dean Sullivan and soundrhythium Michael T.A. Thompson were joined two years ago by pianist Mala Waldron and saxophonist Allen Won -- she offers her first recording with the band.

This is also the first CD in which Sfraga focuses on original material. It's a bit of a stylistic turn as well. In two previous outings -- her debut, "Oh, What a Thrill" and 2003's "Under the Moon" -- Sfraga offered clever new standards, giving a jazz spin on pop tunes and a contemporary makeover to old standards. In the process, she's gathered a sheaf of glowing reviews and comparisons to fellow 'voicists' (as Sfraga refers to herself) Cassandra Wilson and Patricia Barber.

This time out, the only non-original is the Stevie Wonder-penned Rufus hit, "Tell Me Something Good." And that will tell you a lot about this CD, with its strong strain of soul and lyrical focus on love, light and higher planes.

Though a couple of songs ("Cool Water", "Be There") are cut from straightahead cloth, most tracks seem more Steely Dan than Strayhorn, more RTF than MJQ. That said, these 'jazzicists' are a cohesive group, both in terms of their own interplay and the ease in which they incorporate soul, funk, rap and adventurous modern jazz into the mix. Sfraga's clear voice is always appealing, and the whole set has a soaring energy that is in keeping with its positive message music slant. - JAZZIZ MAGAZINE

"Album: "Timelessness Frozen in Time""

Ms. Sfraga claims her quintet, Center Search Quest plays music without borders. Consider her background; church organist to rock-and-roll belter to jazz singer-writer-arranger. She has never met a genre she didn't like or couldn't assimilate. In the past, Sfraga has done "Sophisticated Lady" as an up-tempo jazz waltz and added reggae to "Stardust." In Sfraga's new album, she calls herself a 'voicist'; Michael Thompson is a 'soundrhythium'. Bottom line: few fusion groups can compete with such jazz-oriented diversity. The trio of singers, scat-savvy Sfraga, Mala Waldron (Mal's daughter) who doubles on keyboards, and Thompson doubling on percussion, bark out phrases with the bite of a brass section, and Barbara's soprano cuts through massed sonorities like a laser. On "Be There," tenorist Allen Won adds his horn to the vocal blend, creating four-note chords while the feeling of 3-against-4 pervades the track. On the title tune, Sfraga and her fearless 'voicists' swing in 5/4 as Won's soprano sax weaves soothing obligati. Sfraga's high, thin voice has no difficulty coping with her own wordiness on "Cool Water;" the lyrics are crystal clear. Kudos to Christopher Sullivan for choosing acoustic bass to get that distinctive growl. Highlight: the give and take of "Hang On, Fly Home," Sfraga trading fours and eights with Won's tenor, culminating in astonishing, contrapuntal "free scat." - JAZZ TIMES MAGAZINE

"Album: "Oh, What a Thrill""

The 1990s were full of unimaginative Sarah Vaughan clones and faceless Ella Fitzgerald imitators who failed to bring anything fresh or personal to jazz singing -- like a lot of "Young Lion" instrumentalists, they were stuck in the past and refused to leave their comfort zones even for a minute. But the 1990s also brought us some impressive risk-takers, including Cassandra Wilson, Karrin Allison, Claire Martin, Ann Dyer, and Patricia Barber. Another adventurous jazz singer who started recording in the 1990s was Barbara Sfraga.

An unpredictable artist who can be bluesy one minute and abstract the next, Sfraga takes more than her share of chances on her promising debut album Oh, What A Thrill. This post-bop/avant-garde CD gets off to an impressive start with an unlikely interpretation of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," which Sfraga successfully changes from uptempo rockabilly to slow, atmospheric jazz-noir. And the New York-based singer also shows how daring she can be on the standard "Angel Eyes" (which incorporates Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love") as well as "Good Morning, Heartache" and Lee Morgan's "Free Wheelin'" (for which she provides lyrics). Though Betty Carter's influence serves her well, Sfraga is more accessible - in fact, those who have a hard time getting into Carter could easily be drawn in by Sfraga's dusky and alluring performances on "Invitation" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was."

Sfraga's primary accompaniment on this disc consists of guitarist Bruce Saunders, pianist David Berkman, bassist John Hebert, and drummer Eric Halvorson -- and she has noteworthy guests in pianist Fred Hersch, who is featured on three tracks, and vocalist Mark Murphy, who wrote the liner notes and performs a memorable duet with her on "I'll Call You." Oh, What a Thrill is highly recommended to those who are seeking something fresh and personal from jazz singing....
Alex Henderson, All Music Guide

Sfraga begins her disc in a most unorthodox way: by setting the Jerry Lee Lewis chestnut, "Great Balls of Fire" in a quasi blues, jazz, rock setting that while quite effective, never really reaches the mark. She does better with the coupling of "Angel Eyes" and the Clapton Classic "Sunshine Of Your Love" where John Hebert lays down a steady propelling pulse under an insinuating Bruce Saunders guitar. This is the sexiest piece on a sexy disc. "Good Morning Heartache" is as much a reinvention of the Holiday standard as it is a cover. She sings in an angular fashion over Saunders' weaving guitar in a lightly rocking rhythm. - ALL MUSIC GUIDE

"Album: "Oh, What a Thrill""

She gets your attention right away with a come-hither reinvention of "Great Balls of Fire." She keeps it -and earns it -with her frisky delivery and an urgent but never slavish impulse to connect, more than merely communicate, with her listeners either through her choice of standards ("Angel Eyes" melded with "Sunshine of Your Love"? It works, OK?) or through her original compositions ("Who's to Blame?"). - NEWSDAY (NY)


Timelessness Frozen in Time, SyncTimiCity, 2006
Under the Moon, A440 Music Group, 2003
Oh, What a Thrill, Naxos Jazz, 1999



Voicist Barbara Sfraga

An artist who gathers no moss as she rolls through life, constantly evolving, critics and fans alike look to Barbara with the question: What’s next?, expecting yet another in a long list of surprises.

Described as consistently inventive (Billboard), a master of bold interpretation (Jazz Times), and jazz singing at its cutting-edge best (LA Times), Barbara Sfraga has been on a musical journey that has evolved from church organist to rock keyboardist to voicist. She’s a songwriter and lyricist whose credits include lyrics written to music by Chick Corea, Teo Macero, Lee Morgan, Ron McClure and Joe Locke, and songs written in collaboration with Michael T.A. Thompson, Mala Waldron and Christopher Dean Sullivan. Her first two recordings, Oh, What A Thrill, featuring Fred Hersch and Mark Murphy (1999, Naxos Jazz) and Under The Moon (2003, A440 Music Group), spotlight Sfraga's penchant for molding and twisting a song until it fits her just right. Her reggae take on Hoagie Carmichael’s Stardust, and her slow, steamy version of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire are two prime examples. She is well known for pop-sterdizing jazz and jazz-sterdizing pop, as one critic most aptly noted. Her latest, Timelessness Frozen in Time with Center Search Quest (The Timelessness Project ) features mostly original material penned by the unit.