DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Bay Area jazz vocalist Tiffany Austin spent five and a half years singing in Japan then returned to the States to go to law school. But once she had her diploma, she went back to singing. Her debut album features many songs by the great songwriter Hoagy Carmichael who, by the way, also had a law degree. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKYLARK")
TIFFANY AUSTIN: (Singing) Skylark, have you anything to say to me? Can you tell me where love can be? Is there a meadow in the mist where someone's waiting to be kissed?
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Tiffany Austin on Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer's "Skylark" from her debut "Nothing But Soul." The album title comes from a song she doesn't do, the '60s Betty Carter vehicle "Jazz Ain't Nothing But Soul." Austin takes that advisory to heart. Based in Tokyo for years, she sang jazz, pop and gospel on a variety of gigs, and she can modulate her vocal quality from sweet to dusky to raspy like there's more than one singer in there. But Austin will also fuse all those trains. She has improviser's urge to personalize a melody, gospel fervor, and a pop singer's direct way with a lyric.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALTIMORE ORIOLE")
AUSTIN: (Singing) Baltimore oriole, messed around with that big mouth 'til he singed her wings. Forgiving is easy - oh yeah, 'cause sometimes it's one of them womanlike and happen type of things. So send her back home 'cause home ain't home without her warbling. We'd make a lonely man happy. Baltimore oriole.
WHITEHEAD: The ballad "Baltimore Oriole" and Tiffany Austin's backbeat arrangement. She does six Hoagy Carmichael tunes on "Nothing But Soul," tweaking a couple of the better known ones because it's not like you can harm a song taking a weird approach. When you're done it's still good as new. Austin splits arranging duties with her producer and tenor saxophonist, Bay Area band leader Howard Wiley. He gives one evergreen an archaic two-beat bounce.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARDUST")
AUSTIN: (Singing) And now the purple dust of twilight time lingers over meadows of my heart. High up in the sky, the little stars climb, always reminding me that we're apart.
WHITEHEAD: That's "Stardust," of course. Howard Wiley's jocular arrangement teeters on the edge of being too cute, but Austin keeps it grounded. Your ear stays focused on her, and she is not kidding.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARDUST")
AUSTIN: (Singing) When our love was new and every kiss an inspiration. But that was long ago. Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song.
WHITEHEAD: Hoagie Carmichael didn't compose everything on Tiffany Austin's new album. There are a couple of standards he recorded once but aren't associated with him. One of those is by another iconic American singer-songwriter and occasional screen actor, Mr. Johnny Cash.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WALK THE LINE")
AUSTIN: (Singing) Sure as night is dark and every day is light, I keep you on my mind all day and night. Happiness, I've known is proven that it's right. 'Cause you're mine, I walk that line.
WHITEHEAD: Glen Pearson on piano. That is way better than Hoagy Carmichael's version of "I Walk The Line," and it suggests other avenues Tiffany Austin might explore. Her debut album clocks in at a short-ish 40 minutes and even then, a couple of pieces feel a little like filler. But the best of it is a convincing calling card. She's got that flexible voice, excellent pitch and rhythm, and she can weave her own line around a melody and still let you hear the original behind it. That is more than enough to make Austin a singer to keep an ear on.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GET ALONG WITHOUT YOU VERY WELL")
AUSTIN: (Singing) I get along without you very well - of course I do, except perhaps in spring. But I should never think of spring for that would surely break my heart - my heart - my heart in two.
BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Nothing But Soul," the new album by singer Tiffany Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.