Lissy Walker sings jazz, but she brings her own unique spin to the music by adding elements drawn from the worlds of folk, country, and ‘70s acoustic pop. Walker’s burnished vocals and her virtuosic band slip effortlessly between genres to create their own soulfully sweet sound—dreamy and bittersweet, heartfelt and swinging—on her stunning new recording, Wonderland.
Her debut album, Life Is Sweet, garnered enthusiastic reviews from jazz, folk, and indie music publications, and included some of the Bay Area’s and New York’s finest musicians, including John R. Burr on piano, Jon Evans on bass, Scott Nygaard on guitar, and Steven Bernstein on trumpet, with arrangements that brought together an innovative mix of jazz and folk.
When it was time for a follow-up, Walker and co-producer Evans reassembled the team, along with some new special guest players, including Ben Goldberg on clarinet and Carla Kihlstedt on violin. The ensemble went into Berkeley’s legendary Fantasy Studios on Valentine’s Day and cut Wonderland, an album that brings Walker’s subtle intensity to bear on another collection of gems from the American Songbook, as well as a few modern classics.
The songs on Wonderland deal in dreams and illusions, desires fulfilled and unfulfilled, and the power of reflection and intent. Walker’s sweet, smoky, purring alto is perfectly suited to these songs of yearning. The focus is on songs from two great songwriting eras: swing tunes from the 20s/early 30s and folk ballads from the 70s. Walker’s rich vocals have a hint of restrained passion that suggest country music, but her phrasing, which dances around and before the beat, is pure jazz. Her interpretations, and the brilliance of the band, blend the two eras together, resulting in a classic, yet contemporary, vibe—a perfect hybrid.
Wonderland opens with a starry-eyed medley of “Dream a Little Dream of Me/I’ll See You in My Dreams.” The free, slightly asymmetrical playing of pianist John R. Burr, bassist Jon Evans, and clarinetist Ben Goldberg produces a hallucinogenic tone before the ensemble swings into a hot gypsy jazz rhythm, featuring Burr’s sparkling keys and Steven Bernstein’s muted trumpet adding counterpoint to Walker’s laid-back vocal and quiet, scatted improvisations.
“Tonight You Belong to Me” features Burr’s country jazz piano and Scott Nygaard’s gently trilling mandolin, giving the music the feel of a hot Saturday evening at a swinging barn dance. Walker’s lilting ornamentations give the lyric a sly, seductive feeling.
The oldest song on the record is “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” a disconsolate waltz that, though it dates back to 1918, conveys a sense of pathos and longing that is timeless. Walker’s wistful vocal is full of whispered blue notes and delicate harmonies with Burr’s crystalline piano, Evan’s sonorous bass, Nygaard’s mellow acoustic guitar, and Philip Worman’s sighing cello offering subtle support.
Richard Thompson’s “I Wish I Was a Fool for You” gets a subtle driving folk/rock arrangement with Burr’s driving piano augmented by his work on the Hammond organ. Drummer Jason Lewis plays with the time to complement Walker’s aching vocal. Nygaard’s lilting guitar introduces the Rogers and Hart standard “Isn’t It Romantic?” Evans composed a swooning, lush string arrangement to harmonize with Walker’s shimmering, soulful vocal. The set ends on a jaunty note with “Lullaby in Ragtime,” a tune that evokes the feeling of a late night, sleepy New Orleans jam session. It features Walker’s most sultry vocal, with Goldberg on clarinet, Bernstein on slide trumpet, and the rhythmic magic of drummer Lewis.
Lissy Walker grew up in Berkeley, California. At age ten, she took classical piano lessons and loved to sing. At Berkeley High School, Walker appeared in plays and musicals and toured Europe with the choir. She also attended the Young Conservatory at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) after school and on weekends. “Acting was directly linked to singing for me,” says Walker. “I was singing in a variety of styles and venues—I then decided I wanted to sing with the acclaimed BHS Jazz Band.” She asked jazz director, Phil Hardymon and he put together a jazz combo for her.
Walker studied theater and voice at UCLA and graduated from the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, studying acting with Sanford Meisner and Richard Pinter. After graduation, Walker was a principal performer at the Home for Contemporary Theater and Art. She appeared in numerous productions, including The School for Jolly Dogs, an English Music Hall review, and Charles Mee’s The Imperialists at the Club Cave Canem, which was picked up by Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and featured in the New York Times.
After eight years in New York, Walker and her husband, cellist Philip Worman, moved back to San Francisco. She appeared in the award-winning productions of Tom Jones and The Sea Plays, and in A.C.T.’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Following the birth of her two children, Walker thought about returning to the stage, but singing provided a more immediate path to personal and artistic satisfaction. “I feel like I can get the same feeling within the framework of a song and I’m not at the mercy of someone else’s vision. Songs are like little plays. Singing is more personal and I love the emotional immediacy of popular song.”
Walker immersed herself in jazz and learned how to write charts, arrange, and approach a song from a jazz singer’s prospective. She soon refined her unique style, adding acoustic guitar and cello to her sets, bringing all the elements of the music she loved together. Audiences were moved by her interpretations of the melancholic melodies of Irving Berlin to the honky-tonk rhythms of Randy Newman. Fellow musicians encouraged Walker to record soon after she began singing again, to capture what she had found.
A meeting with Jon Evans led to Life Is Sweet, and he returned to co-produce Wonderland, another collection marked by the band’s subtle virtuosity and Walker’s deep, simmering vocals, delivering an album that continuously reveals emotional and musical intensity.