Kat Edmonson came out of nowhere in 2009 and released one of that year’s best albums, “Take to the Sky,” a delicious collection of rearranged standards and pop songs turned into jazz. Most remarkable was that the little-known Texan with the stunningly sweet voice had never had any training.
The buzz over that album and her performance at the 2009 Tanglewood Jazz Festival led to a coveted slot at George Wein’s New York Jazz Festival. And when Edmonson began raising money to record her sophomore album, she attracted some major attention. Phil Ramone, who has produced such stars as Billy Joel and Paul Simon, signed on to help, as did Grammy-winning engineer Al Schmitt.
The result, “Way Down Low,” is one of the greatest vocal albums I’ve ever heard.
This is no reckless exaggeration. I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be a stretch to write those words. But after listening to “Way Down Low” several dozen times over the past couple of months and never tiring of a single song on it, I say this with confidence: If Kat Edmonson were singing in the 1940s or ’50s, her name would be mentioned alongside those of Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Julie London, and Anita O’Day — maybe even Billie Holiday.
“Way Down Low,” which comes out Tuesday, is neither a jazz album nor a pop album. It’s something in between. Although it fits into that jazzy adult contemporary pop classification carved by Norah Jones and her ilk, it’s far more compelling and diverse than the music made by the genre’s current occupants.
“Way Down Low” introduces a new facet of Edmonson: her songwriting. Seven of the album’s dozen tunes are hers. Separating her compositions from the covers isn’t easy, because even her writing style harks back to a simpler time.
The opening track, “Lucky,” has been around for a few years, having been used in the TV series “The United States of Tara” and a Serta mattress commercial. It’s a cute, dreamy number that only whets the appetite for what is to come. From there, Edmonson evokes Dolly Parton’s warble on the country-jazz tune “I Don’t Know,” turns to bossa nova (specifically that of “Getz/Gilberto”) on “What Else Can I Do,” hints at flamenco on “This Was the One,” and settles in for late-night piano accompaniment on “Nobody Knows That.”
She has clearly listened to a wide range of vocalists and has internalized them all without trying to mimic any of them. Her voice by turns evokes emotional gravitas, flirtatiousness, and quirkiness. Like Holiday, she has a small vocal range; like Holiday, she does amazing things within that range.
She’s playful and coy on a pair of her originals: “Champagne,” which has her channeling Blossom Dearie singing Bob Dorough, and “I’m Not in Love,” an amusing kiss-off that brings to mind Björk (without the weirdness). Lyle Lovett, with whom Edmonson toured last year, duets with her on “Long Way Home,” which recalls Madeleine Peyroux’s take on “Walkin’ After Midnight.”
But there are four songs on this album that are so gorgeous, so perfect, they send chills down my spine every time I hear them, even after 40 or 50 listens.
Two of them are wholly unexpected covers. The Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and the Ink Spots’ “Whispering Grass” are so completely rearranged that they are essentially new songs. Both are slowed way down to nothing, which brings out every purr and scratch in Edmonson’s voice. Hearing her sing the line, “Sometimes I feel very sad / I guess I just wasn’t made for these times,” is heartbreaking. You believe every word, not just because she sounds as though she means them but because her music — her style, her song choices — is itself from another era.
The final two cuts on “Way Down Low” are its climax. Her rendition of “Hopelessly Blue,” written by Miles Zuniga (of the band Fastball), has become my new favorite pop song of any era. At heart it’s a country tune, but she delivers it with a jazz singer’s sensibility — pausing dramatically, skewing notes downward. What she does with the words “day” and “I’d” in the opening line — “I didn’t think the day we met / would be a day that I’d regret” — is downright miraculous. Each note traverses most of an octave — up and back down — in less than a second.
The disc’s closer, a reprise of “I Don’t Know,” is so pretty it’s painful. Matt Munisteri places single chords several seconds apart. Brian Wolfe slowly drags his brushes across the skins, so that every bristle is heard. Edmonson sings — chirps, voice aflutter — more patiently than anyone ever has. Thirteen seconds elapse between her third and fourth words. With a deliberate mumble she sings, “I don’t know” (it sounds like “I oh no”) and you keep waiting for her to reappear, and she makes you wait, and wait, and wait. It comes, finally: “. . . what it is about you . . . that makes me . . . love you so.”
Her heart is on her sleeve for six haunting minutes. Guitar stoically strums. Brushes drag, still. In the distance: a barely miked piano. It’s so intimate it sounds as if she’s by herself, singing in a dark, empty room, or maybe in a bar after hours.
The feeling is exactly the opposite of that in the earlier version of “I Don’t Know,” on which she celebrates love. Here, though the lyrics are the same, she seems to regret it. This may be labeled a reprise, but it’s an entirely different version of the song, and it’s the most beautiful damn thing I think I’ve ever heard in my life.Steve Greenlee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGreenlee.