A debut album by a smart jazz singer with a lithe, lissome sound is always welcome, but when the artist is also a strikingly effective songwriter, a celebration is in order. With the release of Halfway Between Heaven & Love, Oakland-based Suzanna Smith delivers one of the year’s most impressive vocal projects, an intoxicating mix of original tunes and beautifully rendered standards.
Accompanied by some of the most creative figures on the Bay Area scene, Smith combines the confessional imperative of a singer/songwriter with the rhythmic acuity of a jazz chanteuse. She wrote the lyrics for nine of the album’s 13 tracks while collaborating on the music of five songs with pianist/keyboardist Michael Coleman. Smith’s material more than holds its own alongside the American Songbook gems.
Recording an album focusing on original songs wasn’t Smith’s initial game plan. Long tempted to release a session of standards in response to requests by fans, she ended up taking her time and working steadily with a core group of players. Without quite realizing what she had accomplished, she gradually honed a program of emotionally incisive tunes featuring her well-crafted lyrics. “It was very intentional, but kind of an accident,” Smith says. “From the first rehearsals it took about two years until we finally went into the studio. I’ve been so busy performing, and mostly when I perform I don’t do this material. So I was chipping along at this and I didn’t realize what I was building up. It allowed me to turn around and be pleasantly surprised.”