The genesis for jazz singer Judy Wexler’s sixth and latest album, “Back to the Garden,” goes back to 2010, when she hosted a show in Los Angeles featuring a selection of hits from the 1960s. Although she called the performance “Talking to my Generation,” the title wasn’t quite accurate.
“I’m really a child of the 70s,” Wexler told CT Examiner. “I’m not that old.”
But she loved the music, and Wexler said she had a lot of fun performing it.
“I passed out fake hash brownies, you know – tried to make it an event,” she said.
It was only after the 2016 election, Wexler said, that the music started to take on a different significance for her.
“I started thinking about this music more in a resistance kind of way, as a statement,” said Wexler.
She added some protest songs into her set list — Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are a-Changin’,” and Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” — and performed it a second time in 2016, and was planning a third when the pandemic hit.
“I had all this material, and so without any ability to perform them, I thought, well, I should really finally make an album of this music,” she said.
Drawing a line
“Back to the Garden” is a departure for Wexler, both in style and in the decision to cover pieces that are considered iconic. Her previous album, “Crowded Heart,” which was released in 2019, had featured lesser-known jazz pieces that Wexler felt should be more widely known and appreciated.
“I’ve never been a singer that gravitates towards standards,” said Wexler. “Generally speaking, I avoid them because I just feel they’re just so … overexposed already.”
She went on a hunt for contemporary jazz pieces that sounded like standards — a challenge that ended up taking a whole year.
One of the songs she found, “I Took Your Hand” by Lorraine Feather and Enrico Pieranunzi, isn’t quite a standard, but she said she couldn’t pass up the story line.
“The lyrics describe two people meeting in a masked ball, kind of like in the Romeo and Juliet movie from the sixties,” she said. “It’s very romantic and they’re all masked and they don’t know who anybody is. But they meet, and then she’s weak — you know, at the touch of his hand, because she’s just so taken with this stranger.”
Given that a song becomes a standard based on how many times it is recorded, Wexler said that she felt she might inspire others to cover these lesser-known songs, helping put them on a path to discovery.
“I kind of was doing my part in helping that along,” she said.
In the case of “Back to the Garden” she had a different goal — to connect the past with the present, selecting and reviving songs written half a century ago that have become — in her eyes — even more relevant today.
“I am, in my way, my little way, drawing a line from those times to now,” she said.
Where does she see the similarities? The women’s marches. Protests against police brutality. Demands for racial equality. Voter suppression. The environment.
“So much of America is so far behind progressive thinking, you know, and … it’s just completely heartbreaking,” she said. “For so many people that are my friends and fellow musicians, I think the only way we can channel our frustration and our feelings of hope is through our music.”
“Not always … that straight ahead, swing thing.”
Wexler’s set list for The Side Door includes Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” Dylan’s “The Times, They Are a-Changin’,” and Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Up on the Roof,” and pieces chosen from all six of her albums, including “I Took Your Hand.”
She’ll open the performance with a piece that isn’t on any of her albums — Wholly Earth by Abbey Lincoln. She said her pianist arranged it after she requested an opening number that would grab people’s attention.
“It’s very high energy and upbeat, and it has a wonderful ending,” she said. “It’s painting a picture of the world — of all these things that have happened through generations … it’s kind of a unifying message.”
Wexler’s voice is deep and smooth, and she has been praised for her versatility — she sings slow songs without dragging and quick songs without panic or breathiness. In the case of “Back to the Garden,” critics have praised her for being able to present iconic ballads in an interesting, novel way.
Of the songs she decided to include on the album, she said that Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is particularly prescient.
“It was kind of the first time the composers of that era were really looking at what was happening in the country and talking about it … in such a beautiful, articulate, soulful way,” she said.
She said that “Up on the Roof” has a personal significance for her, going back to when she met her husband in the late 1970s, when they were both living in San Francisco.
“He was my upstairs neighbor. And so we had our first kiss on our shared roof,” she said. “So when I sing that song, I kind of allude to that story of how meaningful ‘Up on the Roof’ actually was in my life. We’ve been together for 43 years now, so it lasted.”
When Wexler thinks about the future of jazz, she sees it as a genre that is widely expanding to include other styles — hip hop, fusion, classical. She said she thinks it will only become more inclusive as a greater number of young people become involved in jazz.
“It’s not always going to be that straight ahead swing thing. It’s going to be what they’re hearing, and what they’re hearing has to do with the cultural influences and the time they’re living,” she said.
Wexler will perform at the Side Door in Old Lyme on October 9 at 8:30 p.m, accompanied by Jim Ridl on piano, Bill Moring on bass and Tim Horner on drums.
Judy Wexler at The Side Door Jazz Club, 85 Lyme St., Old Lyme, CT
When: Saturday, Oct. 9. at 8:30 p.m.
Phone: 860 434 2600
Tickets: Click here.