by Ben Gardner
Contrary to popular belief, jazz is not yet dead. Yes, the average age at a jazz concert is 72 and yes, many legends like John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra are dead and gone. And sure, it definitely isn’t heard on the radio (except on WRBB 104.9 FM, of course). Yet, there are still some young musicians keeping its rich tradition alive, such as Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir, better known by just her first name. The Berklee graduate hails from Iceland and is the child of a jazz-loving father and a classical violinist mother. In her youth, Laufey became prolific at both piano and cello, performing as a soloist for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
Jónsdóttir’s musical upbringing steeped in both the European classical tradition and America’s jazz is evident in her music. On her sophomore album, Bewitched, Laufey delights her listeners with lush string instrumentals and delicate guitar lines, all centered around her beautiful vocals. Her voice is reminiscent of great jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald – she uses heavy vibrato and demonstrates impeccable vocal control. She skillfully mixes this style with the harmonies, guitar patterns, and lyric topics of bedroom pop artists such as Lizzie McAlpine, producing a unique sound.
This is exemplified on the closing/title track “Bewitched,” which starts off with a lush orchestral intro that sounds straight out of a Disney movie, transitioning into a simple duet of voice and guitar. The strings ebb in and out of this and many other tracks smoothly and naturally. Both the lead single “From the Start” and “Haunted” utilize bossa nova grooves, with the latter being mysterious and soft-spoken compared to the former’s more upbeat and outgoing vibe. There are more traditional bedroom pop songs like “While You Were Sleeping” and “Lovesick,” as well as a cover of a traditional jazz standard, “Misty,” which is one of the highlights of the album. The track has been covered by legends such as Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. Laufey emulates Fitzgerald in her version, with some nice vocal breaks and expressive vibrato, making the listener feel as if they are walking through a dew-covered field on a spring morning.
Laufey’s vocal performance is stellar on this album. She demonstrates that she is able to sing over a variety of songs with ease, confidence, and personality. Her voice soars majestically over the lush instrumentals provided by London’s Philharmonia Orchestra on “California and Me,” demonstrating her vocal range by staying in the lower register for most of the song and hitting a few high notes towards the end. There is a small scat section on “From the Start,” where she demonstrates her jazz vocabulary. Jónsdóttir is clearly a talented vocalist with a broad variety of musical tools.
Similarly with many jazz vocalists and bedroom pop artists, Laufey mainly sticks to the topics of love and heartbreak in her songs. Throughout the album, she describes the various different romantic situations that she’s experienced in her life, ranging from the jaded-with-romance opener “Dreamer” to the head-over-heels-in-love “Must Be Love.” “Letter to My 13 Year Old Self” is a lyrical highlight; Jónsdóttir transports the listener back to her middle school days in which she stood out like a sore thumb as mixed-race in the majority-white Iceland. She encourages her past self to keep going with her dream of music despite the judgment of others, which serves as an encouraging message to the listener to follow their dreams and persevere in life.
Throughout the album, there's a lot of sleep and dream related imagery which goes along with the mystical sound of the album. The majority of the songs are like lullabies with lush strings, piano, and guitar, all topped by Laufey’s smooth vocals. Listening to it all the way through feels as if you are peering into the dreams of different people. My one criticism of the album is that I would have liked there to be more energetic songs like “From the Start.” There were one too many ballads, and some of them got lost in the multitude.
Some jazz purists would criticize Jónsdóttir for her music’s lack of improvised solos, the hallmark of jazz music. How can she claim to be a jazz musician if there’s no improv? After all, that is what makes jazz unique, the spontaneity and freedom of improv. To that, I would say that even though she does claim jazz as part of her style, it doesn’t make it necessary for her to implement every element of it into her music. Laufey’s music is orchestrated thoughtfully and with intention, skillfully emulating the sound and vibe of jazz, while keeping her songs palatable for her audience.
Overall, Laufey’s Bewitched is a great album which puts her unique style of music on full display. I hope that in the future she continues to branch out and introduce her listeners to other styles of jazz. By positioning herself as a gateway to an amazing genre, Laufey has intelligently given herself many ideas for future music, which I’m excited to hear.