In 1971, the critical acclaim and double platinum sales of Joni Mitchell’s Blue sparked a rush from other record labels to sign their own long-tressed, vulnerable-sounding acoustic folk-based singer-songwriters whose self-confessional lyrics would captivate audiences. Artists such as Kate Wolf, Judee Sill, and Karen Dalton would go on to write, record and release quality music, but the only one who wrote a song that would become a hit and repeatedly appeal to subsequent generations of music fans was Lori Lieberman. Her “Killing Me Softly with His Song” from her debut album became perennially associated with her while becoming smash singles for both Roberta Flack and The Fugees decades later.
Lieberman is still writing, recording and performing. After several other releases in the 1970s, she retired to start a family, then she resumed her music career in the 1990s and has continued ever since, releasing music both independently and on V2 Records (a subsidiary of Virgin Records) in the mid-2000s.
Perhaps echoing the exploratory aspects of music like Joni Mitchell, whom she cites as a big influence, Lori Lieberman recorded The Girl and The Cat (2009) with The Matangi Quartet, which contained both original and previous works arranged for voice, piano and string quartet.
With her latest release, Truly, Lori Lieberman embraces a jazz quartet backing, featuring top-notch eclectic musicians:
- Co-Producer/pianist Matt Rollings (Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Queensrÿche, Mark Knopfler, Alison Krauss)
- Lyle Workman (hit music soundtrack composer and former lead guitarist for Beck, Sting, and Todd Rundgren – he has also appeared on previous Lieberman albums including Bend Like Steel and Bricks Against The Glass)
- David Piltch (bassist with k.d. Lang, Bill Frisell, Holly Cole)
- Victor Indrizzo (drummer with Alanis Morissette, Seal, Lizzo)
To top it off, Truly was engineered in 192 kHz /24-bit and mixed by the legendary Bob Clearmountain, and released in multiple audiophile formats including DSD 256 and Dolby Atmos. It was recorded at Santa Monica, California’s Apogee Studio with Clearmountain using a vintage Neve console and a Neumann U49 tube mic (among others). The live interaction of Lieberman and the musicians collaboratively creating their sound in a single room captures the performance method Lieberman had previously used with her album with The Matangi Quartet.
Here’s a short documentary on the making of Truly:
Truly is a collection of Lieberman originals, and standards from The Great American Songbook, along with a jazzy re-working of “Killing Me Softly” on the 50th anniversary of its first release – a new rendition with a vocal reflective of Lieberman’s life’s experiences after five decades.
The stellar musicianship of the assembled quartet frees Lieberman, herself an accomplished pianist and guitarist, to focus on her vocals as an interpreter of songs outside of her usual realm as a folk/pop singer/songwriter. While she has recorded pop cover songs by Paul Simon, Barry Gibb, and others, Truly showcases Lori Lieberman singing jazz standards, and her transition is a seamless success, much like Seal’s foray into the genre with Standards (2017).
Truly opens with the 1938 Tin Pan Alley Coots/Holiday/Gillespie classic “You Go To My Head,” featuring a captivating piano solo by Rollings (with some subtle organ overdubs in the background), followed by a closing guitar solo by Workman, it showcases Lori Lieberman as a jazz artist with confidence and an underlying sense of fun in her voice, and interpreting the song in a manner to avoid any comparisons to previous recordings of the song made famous by Billie Holiday and others.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring (C’est le Printemps)” gets the Edith Piaf treatment as Lori Lieberman opts for French lyrics and a breathy, Piaf-like vibrato in her phrasing and sustained notes. The song is featured in the 1945 film State Fair, and won the Academy Award for Best Song. The choice to sing “It Might As Well Be Spring” in French successfully allows Lori Lieberman’s version of the song to stand on its own apart from the Margaret Whiting, Sarah Vaughan, or Nina Simone recordings.
As an interesting side note, this was one of the first songs that composer Richard Rodgers wrote with Oscar Hammerstein after his successful run with lyricist Lorenz Hart. Rodgers’ songs with Hart are notably jazzier with greater emphasis on melody, as he generally wrote the music first and Hart added lyrics afterwards. With Hammerstein, Rodgers most often put pre-written lyrics to music, similar to the way Elton John composes music from Bernie Taupin’s lyrics.
“It Might As Well Be Spring” historically had two different melodies. Historians and musicologists appear to agree that the popular version’s melody was more in the style of Rodgers’ work with Hart. Rodgers’ own memoirs indicate that he and Hammerstein, who had first written the song as an uptempo number, originally disagreed with the film studio’s music director, who preferred a slower ballad style, and Rodgers conceded that in the end, the studio was right that the ballad version was a better fit for the film.
“Moonlight in Vermont” was a 1944 song by John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf, recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Smith, and many others. Notable for its unusual lack of rhyme, Lieberman and her quartet stay faithful to the Ella Fitzgerald arrangement, with Lyle Workman taking a guitar solo in place of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet on the original recording.
Frank Sinatra’s 1953 recording of Guy Wood and Robert Mellin’s “My One and Only Love” made the song a jazz standard that was later even recorded by John Coltrane. Sinatra’s version, however, was performed with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, dating the song and its arrangement firmly in the 1950s. Lieberman’s approach avoids the schmaltziness of Rod Stewart’s version (2005) or the forced earnestness of Sting’s (2020) and relies more on the interaction with pianist Matt Rollings in a mode reminiscent of Tony Bennett’s long connection with pianist Ralph Sharon.
On “Killing Me Softly,” Lieberman intentionally slows the song down and the sparse arrangement adds extra gravitas to her lyrics and her delivery, replacing the innocent vulnerability of her 1972 version with a combination of bittersweet memory, resignation, and an underlying strength and resolve from having been able to move on. This revisiting of her iconic composition is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now (2000), in which Mitchell reworked her own “Both Sides Now” and “A Case of You” for voice and orchestra with slowed down, contemplative tempos and lower keys to accommodate her dropped vocal register. Coincidentally, Both Sides Now also consists primarily of jazz standards apart from the aforementioned Mitchell compositions.
The title song, Lieberman’s “Truly,” is the album’s standout track, both in terms of the vocal performance and the arrangement, which features an assertive guitar solo by Workman. The song shows a marked departure from her earlier version on Bricks Against The Glass (2013), which is more of an acoustic/ambient arrangement reminiscent of Daniel Lanois’ work with Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball. Although Workman’s guitar playing on the earlier version features layers of acoustic guitar amidst the lush reverbs and synth pads, the live jazz version of “Truly” positively sizzles, and Lieberman keeps that approach for her subsequent live shows, as seen in a clip from her recent New York concert.
“Truly” live from The Cutting Room:
“Truly” from Bricks Against The Glass (2013)
Perhaps the one track that does not attain the same high standards of the rest of Truly is Lori Lieberman’s rendition of the Doris Day hit, “Que Sera Sera.” Recorded with piano and overdubbed string sounds in the background, it feels like an attempt to capture the same mood as “It Might As Well Be Spring (C’est le Printemps)” but the cheery banality of the lyrics seemingly contradict the somber mood of the Rollings/Lieberman arrangement.
Since recording her album Ready For the Storm in 2015, Lori Lieberman has worked at the highest-resolution recording standards available. Her recent albums and musical directions have led to a newly-growing fan base within the audiophile community, where other jazz-oriented singers like Patricia Barber, Holly Cole and Jane Monheit are creating wonderful music welcomed by audiophiles and music fans alike. Lori Lieberman’s Truly is definitely another release worth adding to aficionados of great music recorded in exceptional sound.
Header image of Lori Lieberman courtesy of Stefanie Fife.