It’s more than a little ironic that Rebecca Sullivan discovered her jazz calling in Russia. Remember, not so long ago, when jazz and other American music were banned there? But the Cold War was long over in 2004, when she spent a semester abroad studying Russian literature in St. Petersburg. Jazz clubs abounded there. And she could get into them, free of the drinking-age restriction that kept her out of nightclubs in her college town of Portland, Oregon. Hearing the music performed live was a revelation. “I had no idea songs could sound like that,” she said.
Jazz CDs, which once had to be smuggled into Russia, were now plentiful and cheap. A self- taught guitarist who had performed folk music on open-mic nights at coffeehouses back home and who was obsessed with Bob Dylan, Sullivan immersed herself in recordings by Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Carmen McRae. Back home, it wasn’t long before she was studying jazz singing, performing at college music showcases and pursuing her own career as a jazz vocalist.
You can hear Holiday’s inflections on Sullivan’s intoxicating debut album, This Way, This Time. But with her girlish sophistication, gleaming intelligence, and three-octave range (she modestly says she only uses two-and-a-half of it), the Pennsylvania native is at 29 already a full blown original—someone who stands apart from all the standards singers now crowding the field not only with her distinctive style, but also her eagerness to take risks. Featured here in a duo with innovative Chicago guitarist Mike Allemana, she mixes affecting interpretations of infrequently heard standards by Frank Loesser, Johnny Mandel, and Hoagy Carmichael with boldly personal versions of songs by the Beach Boys, Nick Drake, and St. Vincent.