“An inspired vocal chameleon, Lawrence doesn’t remake songs to conform to a dominant style. Instead, she lets every song reveal itself, using her voice as a vehicle that often changes course along the way.”
“…she puts a fresh retro contempo twist on many classics from the jazz canon, which dovetail nicely with her own originals….”
Marya Lawrence has music in her blood. The daughter of saxophone legend Arnie Lawrence, who co-founded and taught at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, Lawrence found her voice early on and began composing and improvising as a child, frequently collaborating with her older brother, the noted saxophonist Erik Lawrence. She made her public debut as a vocalist leading the all-female Bitches Brew and released her first album, All the Way Back, with her jazz quartet Metamorphosis in 1998.
On her latest release, recorded just before Covid struck, Lawrence anticipated the pandemic by doing what every musician did when all their gigs dried up: hustled to keep Paying the Bills. She also doubled down on the title with a play on words that fulfills a longtime goal: to pay tribute to all the Bills who influenced her as an artist, from Billie Holliday to Bill “Count” Basie to the recently deceased Bill Withers, to whom Lawrence dedicated the album. In the process of giving the Bills their due, she puts a fresh retro contempo twist on many classics from the jazz canon, which dovetail nicely with her own originals.
An inspired vocal chameleon, Lawrence doesn’t remake songs to conform to a dominant style. Instead, she lets every song reveal itself, using her voice as a vehicle that often changes course along the way.
“God Bless the Child,” her homage to Billie Holliday, starts out sassy and sweet and gradually becomes more forlorn, spurring her to testify with gospel-like vocal swoops punctuated by her trademark scats. “You Are So Beautiful” (Billy Preston), her intimate duet with her brother Erik, crescendos on a swell of scats before gently fading into a murmur, while her “digga doo” take on “Use Me” is full of feisty surprises and just plain fun.
Recorded with two stellar lineups of world-class musicians, Paying the Bills enhances its message with beautifully produced videos for several of the tracks that give other creative artists a chance to shine. Two tap dancers double down on Lawrence’s scatting in “Use Me,” while Lawrence herself takes wing as a dancer on her own “Night Butterfly,” a jazzy bossa nova number that shines a light into the darkness. While the music speaks for itself, the videos really make the songs come alive and are worth seeking out.
A former New Yorker now based in New Orleans, Cree McCree has been a music journalist for more than 40 years. She’s currently a regular contributor to DownBeat, Offbeat and PleaseKillMe.com, where she continues to write about “music that gives me magic and why.”
“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.”– Lao Tzu