Martha Wainwright with Rufus Wainwright at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Wednesday (December 3). $22.50-$35.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
The notion of Woodstock blues picker Geoff Muldaur getting together with some folkie friends - including Loudon Wainwright III and his daughter Martha Wainwright - to revisit the music of 20s jazz modernist Bix Beiderbecke is raising some greying eyebrows amongst the pipe-smoking fans of the forward-looking cornetist. And understandably so. Muldaur is better known as a guitar-strumming founding member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band than someone familiar with the music made during the transition period between Dixieland and swing.
But that's what makes the Berklee-schooled musician's update of Beiderbecke's work on Private Astronomy (Edge/Deutsche Grammophon) such a delightful surprise.
Muldaur's exquisitely tasteful arrangements for his Futuristic Ensemble aside, it's the understated verve with which Martha Wainwright delivers Singin' The Blues and There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth The Salt Of My Tears that takes the album beyond reverent homage. Like her older brother Rufus, Wainwright sounds like she was born to sing standards and show tunes.
"Although it's never really been a focus for me," says Wainwright from a Pittsburgh hotel, "singing standards is something I've always done. I learned a lot of those songs as a child because that's what we'd sing together for social occasions to entertain at home.
"Geoff has worked on sessions with both my mother and father, so he asked me to be involved in the Bix Beiderbecke project because he knew I could sing those songs. I guess it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time."
It might seem like a standards album would be the obvious way to go for Martha Wainwright, whose full-length debut is long overdue. Yet despite the current popularity of standards recordings - or perhaps because of it - Wainwright is against the idea of doing any such thing. No black evening gowns and gloves for Martha any time soon.
"Singing standards is great and would be relatively painless to do compared to recording an album of my own songs, but I feel it's really important for the evolution of music to contribute something new. I still do a standard or two in my set, and I recently sang I'll Be Seeing You on camera for Martin Scorsese's forthcoming film about Howard Hughes, called The Aviator, but I want my own songs on my first album.
"With all these people doing standards - Cyndi Lauper, Rod Stewart, Norah Jones and Diana Krall - I don't think the world really needs another standards album right now. Anyway, I'd much rather hear artists like Elvis Costello singing their own stuff than whatever he was doing on that North album. He really should be doing Elvis Costello songs."
Wainwright has finished recording her as-yet-untitled debut album, produced with musical collaborator Brad Albetta, and she fully intends to have it out by March, whether or not she finds an appropriate label to release and distribute it.
"I started the project thinking I was going to do the album really fast - just a month and done - but it wound up taking a year. After a month of recording I started to really like what we were getting, but I was quickly running out of money.
"Since I didn't want to sign the crappy record deal I was offered at the time, I asked the musicians to work on spec and recorded whenever there was time available at the studio. Hopefully I can find the right label to release it, but if not, it's coming out anyway."
The four-song EP that Wainwright will be selling at her upcoming Massey Hall show gives some indication of what she has in mind for the album.
"Anyone expecting me to do standards is in for a bit of a shock," she roars. "I'm calling the disc Bloody Motherfucking Asshole, which is a title of one the songs from the sessions. But then it has me singing How Soon (Will I Be Seeing You?) on it, which is a standard, so there you go."