Judith Owen,
Lost & Found
(Century of Progress, 2005)

Taken at face value, Lost & Found sounds like high-quality vocal and piano jazz. This would be a seriously different review had I not had the chance to see Judith Owen perform live recently. Sure, I'd probably mention that this is her fifth album, that it contains mostly original compositions alongside covers of Cole Porter's "Night & Day," Sting's "Walking on the Moon" and Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." I'd certainly point out that Cassandra Wilson, Keb Mo, Tom Scott and Richard Thompson make guest appearances on the record. I might even point out that Owen has appeared on albums by long-time friend, British singer-songwriter Julia Fordham. And finally, I know I couldn't get away without making reference to Owen's husband and occasional musical partner, Harry Shearer, who shows up on several songs here, playing bass and adding backing vocals.

All this information would certainly begin to give an idea, on paper at least, of the sort of artist Judith Owen is. That conception would be woefully incomplete were I not to point out that this Welsh singer-songwriter has one of the most intense, humorous and in-your-face personalities you'll ever run across in the entertainment business. Her live show suggests that the pristine-sounding piano tunes work as the straight man in her comedy act. Although a classically trained pianist, Owen blurs the lines between jazz, pop and Celtic in her music.

In the wake of numerous lounge covers of hard rock and heavy metal tunes, a piano jazz "Smoke on the Water" may not be the most original idea (Owen also did a similar take on "Black Hole Sun" on her last album, tributing in a way the Steve & Edie version that for better or worse paved the way for this sort of thing), but it does underscore the quality of the songwriting that made this such a memorable Deep Purple standard.

The 10 originals are well written and Owen's voice has a nice appealing quality. The recording and production are first rate and Owen's piano work is so accomplished that some of the songs seem austere at times; all the better perhaps to serve as counterpoint to that effervescent stage persona that her own press release aptly describes as "equal parts Joni Mitchell and Eddie Izzard." "Emily" has a nice sounding hook, almost reminiscent of Laura Nyro, even if the lyrics tend toward the dramatic in a serious way. "Train Out of Hollywood" has a really ear-friendly melody, complemented by the steel guitar of Keb Mo. Cassandra Wilson's vocal contribution to "Enough" adds an earthy and soulful dimension to the jazz; a great pairing. The bonus track, "Dreaming," is an Owen composition that was used in the feature film P.S. (2004) starring Laura Linney.

The other two cover songs on Lost & Found allow Owen to show yet another aspect of her talent. These are not by-the-book covers, but the combination of these great song compositions filtered through Owen's musical sensibility result in what may be the best tracks on the record. "Night & Day" is slow paced and sounds very deliberately heartfelt, ably aided by Richard Thompson's guitar. You're not likely to have heard Cole Porter interpreted in quite this fashion before and the result is most pleasing. "Walking On the Moon" offers a superb version of the classic tune that shows clearly the underlying jazziness that permeated Sting's writing even as early as the second Police album, Regatta de Blanc in 1979.

The seeming contradiction between the sound of this record and Owen's concert performances may provide the key that makes the whole thing work. If you've never seen Judith Owen in concert you can still enjoy Lost & Found for the music it contains, but for those who have, this record makes a whole heck of lot more sense.

by William Kates
24 March 2007

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