Chris Humphrey, Nothing but Blue Sky

by Jeff Becker

Chris Humphrey is a musician who is multi-faceted in his talents and accomplishments. A jazz vocalist, whose primary focus is the use of the voice as an instrument, he is an improviser and composer as well as an interpreter of songs. Chris teaches jazz piano at the University of Southern Maine. Additionally, Humphrey is the Director of Music at Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine. Previously Chris was the Director of vocal jazz at the University of Southern Maine, and the University of New Hampshire.

These experiences have continued Humphrey’s exploration and experimentation with complex harmony, rhythm and technically diverse vocal presentations clearly exhibited in his latest release Nothing but Blue Sky.

A popular hit from the 70’s “I Can See Clearly Now” is a song written and recorded by Johnny Nash originally, that hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 4, 1972. Humphrey hits the emotional core of this cut, with moody and emotive colors that feature Humphrey surrounded by a pillow of rhythmic intensity provided by drummer, Matt Wilson and bassist, Martin Wind. Pianist Mark Shilansky provides dramatic lines and fantastic dynamics during his ensemble work, not over powering the bassist when he solos with over comping to detract from Wind. Humphrey uses a wide array of harmony choices with his interpretation of the melody. His lower register is strong and rhythmically precise, Humphrey lands in the pocket with each phrase.

Thelonious Monk created some of his most innovative music during the period in the early ’50s when he recorded for Prestige, even then, few musicians could respond to Monk’s challenging compositions and sharp-angled, dissonant comping. “Friday the 13th” is one of those tunes, now adding lyrics to the mix you really have a tongue twister. “(The Date Is) Friday the 13th,” is the compositional mastery of Monk, mixed with the lyrical acrobatics of Chris’ wife, Jenn Humphrey. Chris Humphrey (don’t get confused now) eloquently conveys the lyrical message with ease and on-point vocal control, in addition to, adding a well-rounded scat section that further exemplifies Humphrey’s vocal prowess.

Another Humphrey family affair is “Anna’s Song (Safe in My Arms).” Chris and Jenn Humphrey share the writing credits on this heart-felt tune. Bassist, Martin Wind opens the tune with a lyrical bowed intro. Humphrey shines on this cut, with a delicate and attentive inflection in his voice; it is evident that he is truly singing to his child. You can hear the sincerity in his voice, the type of sincerity only shared with a loved one. Wilson and Wind creatively, but softly, fashion a true lullaby appeal with this tune, truly showcasing their ability to thrive and listen sensitively in all musical settings.

That brings me to an important point. Nothing but Blue Sky is a well-conceived collection of songs that nicely create texture changes from cut to cut. It is apparent that Humphrey has spent many years on the bandstand because his album reads like a well put together set.

One of my favorite highlights of the CD is “Swingin’ Til the Girls Come Home.” An Oscar Peterson/Jon Hendricks tune that swings, sings and rings true. Humphrey starts the tune out with a bouncing scat that parlays into sassy lyrics and back into a swingin’ scat that keeps the flow working. The quartet works together like a well-oiled machine. Shilansky aptly reacts to Humphreys scat lines, with call and answer stabs to create a finely tuned interactive setting. Wilson holds it down and Wind again gives us a burning bowed solo. Wilson then takes the lead and shows us his fine work on the skins. The group trades eight’s and cooks the cut to a fever point. Humphrey again displays an exemplary rendition of a true technician in the vocal jazz genre.

Nothing but Blue Sky could be deceiving by its title to be a whimsical vocal CD, but make no mistake this is a disc for true jazz aficionado’s and a listener who truly appreciates the intricacies and difficult compositions Humphrey is portraying in this wonderful collection of storylines through jazz harmonies. This is a must have, for a jazz collection of any type.

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