Kelly Roberti is one of the most capable and expressive bassists in jazz today. He’s also a thoughtful and inventive writer. He’s published poetry and penned tangos for international saxophone giant David Murray and others. His collection of ballads is just what you expect: serious and out-of-the-melodic ordinary with an emotional depth that would make the self-conscious blush.
These seven numbers aren’t so much ballads as we generally think of them but art songs, more Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht than Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. Much of the atmosphere comes from Roberti’s lyrics, more poetic than the usual verse-chorus cleverness and often the better for it (sadly, the CD package doesn’t contain lyrics). The words are about devotion, reverence and sacrifice, focused, as in “Bullets,” on strong images. The lusciously-tone Jeni Fleming is the perfect vocalist for this serious, even confessional tone. Most of what is moving here comes from Fleming as she delivers Roberti’s lyrics with the respect and sincerity.
In other places, it’s the instrumentalists setting the tone. These somber, considered numbers, like “Vittorio,” rely on saxophonist Alan Faque to make something of the mood. Again, the tunes aren’t quite what you expect. There are definitive themes and occasional nods to new music forms. Compositions always seems in service of the words and not the other way around.
Roberti’s play in all this is exquisite as always. But the mood is so consistently slow and downbeat one can’t help but wish for something a little more lively to come along. It would be great to hear Roberti perform this music with musicians who are a bit stronger at improvisational expression. Faque has some nice moments but generally it’s Fleming that keeps things interesting. These songs are fine, even great as stand alones. The entire program, though only 45 some minutes long, tends to drag. But definitely scatter Roberti’s ballads around your playlist. He’ll get you thinking.