When Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble teamed up with songwriter Catherine Feeny and jazz drummer Chris Johnedis, one night at the Alberta Street Pub last November, they produced a great show and live recording. I imagine the set’s opening line, “I’m sorry” half-whispered by Feeny, from the song “Against You,” hooking the ears of everyone there, lifting heads from the chatter and beers, keeping them fixed there all night.
Her apology in “Against You” is atonement as much as it is a protest, an announcement of will. Her lyrics are rebellious and exposing, she can be tender but then rough as she gauges an experience. I trust her, which is something I don’t think I’ve consciously felt as a listener. Her voice expresses this same range — sweet, deep and tough — and the songs alternatively feel as airy as a net and then shift to feeling solidly encased in a tunnel.
Chris Johnedis provides a springing rhythm throughout the album. I hear his swift tapping fade-in for arrival in each song, and the whole production seems to lift up a ladder for Feeny’s vocal to climb. They have been making music together for three years.
With Douglas Detrick on trumpet, Lars Campbell on trombone, Mary-Sue Tobin, Lee Elderton and Pete Petersenback on saxophone for “I Don’t Know If I Am,” it is a tentative, questioning song as the orchestra draws out Feeny’s self-introspection, as if they want to offer the reflection to better see herself. Johnedis punctuates and anchors each statement. This elevates into a declaration, with all the writer’s uncertainties.
With the ensemble behind her, Feeny’s pop-sensibility unwinds so that spontaneity wins over catchiness. Each song enjoys unpredictable rhythms, and my attention was not allowed to waver much, or drift by absently humming along. The lyrics alone, spanning love to social commentary, draws in for the emotive poems they are, inquiring about love, riot, doubt, and society. Her vocal style blooms on this recording as impressions of folk, indie pop, jazz, soul and blues show up in true form.