"Mower takes songs where none have gone"

By DOUG MAINE — Special to The Courant Jazz Review

To say Dianne Mower’s return to Hartford was a success would be an understatement.

Buoyed by an overflow crowd that included many old friends, the vivacious vocalist, who was a local performer herein the early 1980s, hit the stage with a fast romp thru “The Song is You” and only gathered steam from there, performing Sunday in a Hartford Jazz Society concert at the Holiday Inn.

Mower’s voice is an extremely flexible instrument, breathy and full of warmth on ballads and capable of wild abandon at fast tempos or shouting riffs like Count Basie’s trumpet section to egg her fellow bandsmen on. She also could communicate a sort of comic irony, half talking, half singing on numbers like Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You.”

Some of the arrangements by pianist Bill Mays (one of which you hear on this page) required Mower to go through the full range of tempos and attitudes within the course of a song, which she did, seemingly unfazed by the volcanic musical activity Mays’ quartet was unleashing around her.

In her willingness to take songs where no voice has gone before, sing at Fast tempos and tackle tricky arrangements, Mower showed she is a true jazz musician, not unlike the great diva Betty Carter. Of course, Mower has her own voice, one that reflects her obviously exuberant spirit. Where Carter’s voice embodies the cool attitude of jazz, Mower’s is full of show-biz sass, not unlike that of Judy Garland.

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Breathy and more restrained on ballads such as “Embraceable You”, Mower sounded almost like a muted trumpet. And she also interacted with members of the quartet the way a horn player might, never forcing them to hold back while she sang. With the likes of Mays, bassist Harvie Swartz and flutist /saxophonist Dick Oatts on the bandstand, that meant she was always in peril of being overshadowed.

Swartz, who has performed and recorded in a duet setting with vocalist Sheila Jordan, has a strong tone and sure touch. He provided a solid, walking backdrop and was a consistently inventive soloist.

The band smoldered on Mays’ arrangement of “Old Devil Moon” which started as a ballad, then broke loose into an infectious funk rhythm. It gave Swartz a chance to prove he could slap the bass with the likes of Bootsy Collins and showed Mays at his earthy, roadhouse-piano best.

Another standard, “Almost Like Being in Love”, might have been unrecognizable without the lyrics. But chaos became a joyful noise as Mower stood in the eye of the storm, belting out the familiar melody.