Jenna McLean’s debut album Brighter Day encompasses everything that a true jazz musician should present: Homages to classic recordings in her arrangements, original lyrics, an original composition and clear, precise improvisations through the chord changes.
But what makes McLean stand out as a vocalist is her approach. She abandons the path of the lounge songstress, instead programming her album like a horn player. As a current Jazz Studies doctoral student at the University of Northern Colorado and winner of Downbeat’s 2018 Outstanding Vocal Jazz Soloist award in the graduate category, McLean has truly refined her craft.
Brighter Day (live preview here) opens with the up-tempo, super swinging “Long Ago and Far Away,” featuring an aggressive yet clean scat solo. Immediately McLean stands out from the pack. She includes deliberate bebop language, intuitively demonstrating her internalization of the chord changes, even at a fast pace. Her improvised melodies have a narrative arc, while maintaining a conversational aspect. She is virtuosic and has complete control of her instrument.
Sometimes it would seem that there’s an unspoken list of songs that every jazz vocalist must include, sometimes exclusively. McLean follows this “rule” with selections from the Great American Songbook, including ”I’m Glad There Is You,” but she also eschews the jam-session’s greatest hits with other lesser-knowns, including refreshing pieces from Wayne Shorter, Joni Mitchell, and an original composition, the title track “Brighter Day.”
But her self-written tune is far from the only original thing here. She’s a clever lyricist who sees the songs as opportunities for her own stories and anecdotes, writing them over the pre-existing melodies. While it’s not uncommon for vocalists to write lyrics over traditionally instrumental tunes, like her selection “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” McLean stretches that ability, even including lyrics over a re-do of Stan Getz’s solo in “Lover Man.”
McLean understands the prestige of the “jazz musician” label, yet she is personal, expressive and keeps up with her instrumental counterparts, never losing her personality in her music.
Brighter Day drops February 21 with a release concert that evening at Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club in Denver.