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Spinning The Beatles

Ann Dyer
This Bird Can Sing: The music of the Beatles gets a fresh coating of innovative jazz embellishments on vocalist Ann Dyer's new album, 'Revolver.'

Jazz vocalist Ann Dyer puts a new spin on 'Revolver'

By Nicky Baxter

ANN DYER RELISHES subversive acts. On her 1995 debut album, Ann Dyer and No Good Time Fairies With Hafez Modirzadeh, the San Francisco-based jazz vocalist rewired some improvisational-music standards (along with a few oddities) and seduced listeners into hearing those compositions with fresh ears. Her latest project is even more daunting: tackling the Beatles' 1966 landmark album, Revolver.

Lesser talents might have opted to enter Beatleland via the smoother gateway of, say, Help! or A Hard Day's Night--ear-candy classics both. Instead Dyer and her long-time collaborators, No Good Time Fairies, have decided to veer off into decidedly more challenging terrain.

On the aptly dubbed Revolver: A New Spin--which is due out sometime next January on the singer's Mr. Brown label--Dyer and company (Jeff Buenz, guitar; John Shifflett, bass; Jason Lewis, drums; Rob Burger, accordion; and featured artist saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum) transform one of white pop's pivotal moments into a jazz wonderland brimming with unusual twists and turns. Currently, Dyer and her band are on tour road-testing her takes on such classics as "Rain," "For No One," "Taxman" and "Tomorrow Never Knows."

While the press-only four-song sampler ("I'm Only Sleeping," "And Your Bird Can Sing," "She Said, She Said," and "Eleanor Rigby") won't prompt anyone to torch the originals, A New Spin does offer definitive proof that Dyer is one of music's most compelling high-wire performers.

SPEAKING FROM her San Francisco home, Dyer says the project began modestly. "We started out doing 'Tomorrow Never Knows,' " she explains, "and then both the drummer and I started thinking about doing 'John, I'm Only Sleeping.' At that point, I thought, 'Why don't we just do the whole album?' It's been a really enjoyable process."

What many regard as the Beatles' first unequivocally brilliant work provided the perfect vehicle for Dyer and No Good Time Fairies. "I'm Only Sleeping" is an excellent case in point.

The song's dreamy feel is set in place by Shifflett's midnight-blue bass and underpinned by Lewis' shimmering cymbals. Dyer's husky alto is as intimate as a rainy-morning breakfast in bed for two. Eschewing John Lennon's otherworldly vocal for earthier tones, Dyer caresses each syllable with a sensuality that is almost palpable.

"She Said, She Said" commences with Buenz's eccentric, pinging guitar. Dyer, who studied Hindustani vocalizations on a recent trip to India, demonstrates her grasp of the form while deftly avoiding gratuitous pyrotechnics. Alternating cloud-bound ululations with unexpected flights of jazzy scat, she brings into sharp focus the song's Eastern flavor.

Says Dyer: "Revolver is almost like a songwriter's demo. They're like sketches. It's unlike Sgt. Pepper's or Abbey Road. I would never attempt to do those albums because it would be too daunting, because they're so produced." Lennon's studio-centric "Tomorrow Never Knows" notwithstanding, Dyer believes that Revolver provides a roomier canvas for her interpretive skills.

On "Eleanor Rigby," Dyer and No Good Time Fairies exploit that canvas to near perfection. Paul McCartney's original proceeds at a funereal pace, of course. The ensemble's take is somewhat somber as well, at least initially. With Burger's accordion taking the lead, the tune starts off sounding a little like Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" sans all the high drama. By the time the chorus arrives, however, "Eleanor Rigby" is rocking down the highway--Buenz has finally cranked his guitar up to 10 and the rhythm section is roaring away alongside him.

And, as expected, Dyer's vocal is refreshingly original. Rather than wallowing in the song's stultifying melancholia, she opens it up, employing subtle shifts in meter and phrasing to stem the flood of tears, allowing another way of experiencing the song.

Dyer readily admits that while growing up she was not exactly a pop addict, preferring Billie Holiday over the Byrds. Still, even an avid jazz fan like Dyer could not resist the boyish charms of the four lads from England. All it took was a Beatles Web-sighting to remind the singer of her long-dormant Fabmania.

"I realized I was a complete Beatles nut," Dyer says. "I got my first Beatles album when I was five. And now, when I sing those songs [onstage], it seems they're still in the public's unconscious. The hold that these songs have--it's incredible."

Ann Dyer and No Good Time Fairies with Peter Apfelbaum perform Monday (Dec. 15) at 8pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $8 adv./$10 dr. (408/427-2227)

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From the Dec. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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