No American jazz singer has traversed a wider array of musical territory over the past five years than the Bay Area’s Laurie Antonioli. Exploring with her vaunted American Dreams Band, she organically transforms any song into a possibility-filled jazz vehicle, a journey that culminated most recently in 2014’s critically hailed Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light (Origin), an album based on the extraordinary music of Joni Mitchell. While named on numerous best-album-of-the-year lists, the album received particularly cherished accolades from Ms. Mitchell herself, who invited Antonioli to perform at SFJAZZ’s May 8 gala celebration in her honor alongside Kris Kristofferson, Kurt Elling, Brian Blade, Joe Jackson, Patti Austin, and Tom Scott, among others.
Antonioli follows up with Varuna (Origin), an album that takes her into very different sonic and emotional spaces. It’s a duo project that reunites her with piano legend Richie Beirach on a collection of utterly reimagined standards, spontaneous inventions, and Beirach originals featuring Antonioli lyrics (German bassist Pepe Berns joins on four of the album’s 13 tracks). In many ways, the album continues an intermittent but always probing musical conversation stretching back nearly three decades, a creatively charged relationship fueled by mutual musical admiration.
“Laurie is the real deal,” Beirach says. “She’s got a rich, elegant, colorful alto voice, great intonation, and amazingly creative and spontaneous phrasing. But most of all, she possesses that unteachable, unexplainable element of humanity deep down in every note she sings.”