New York City has its fair share of sobriquets—”The City That Never Sleeps,” “The Big Apple,” and “Gotham” are just a few that spring to mind. It’s a place of joy and frustration, triumph and tragedy, hope and despair, and all that exists between the extremes. It’s a microcosm of the world we know, existing not asa great city, but as the great city. Just ask vocalist Hilary Gardner, an Alaskan-turned-New Yorker who’s been soaking up New York City’s aura and contributing to its cultural landscape since 2003.
Plenty of musicians, in New York or any other locale across the globe, try to build careers around or atop recordings, but Gardner went the other way. She spent her first New York decade carving her place into the city’s artistic fabric, working her way into the heart of live audiences at clubs, performing/collaborating with symphony orchestras, and taking Broadway by storm via her singing in Twyla Tharp’s Frank Sinatra extravaganza—Come Fly Away. Now, after firmly planting her flag in “The City So Nice, They Named it Twice,” Gardner delivers her leader debut—a better-than-great offering called The Great City.
To many, this record may seem like a throwback date. It’s a classy collection of songs that speak, saunter, and/or swing with old world charm, but it’s not a look into the distant past or an overly romanticized vision of New York life. It’s a collection of stories that form a big(ger) picture about the city. There’s an after after hours perspective (“Drunk On The Moon”), a touch of sadness mixed into a season of beauty (“Autumn In New York”), references to “Ol’ Blue Eyes” (“Brooklyn Bridge”), and more. Through it all, Gardner proves to be poised, world-wise, and witty in her experience-shaded delivery.
Crafting a program of music that successfully puts Leonard Cohen next to Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, Tom Waits beside Vernon Duke, and Nellie McKay after Johnny Mercer is no easy feat, but Gardner makes it seem like a breeze. She ties all of the music together beautifully and she works with a simpatico crew that’s able to bring her vision(s) to life. Pianist Ehud Asherie upholds and extends his reputation as an old soul living in modern times, guitarist Randy Napoleon serves as Gardner’s most trusted guide, saxophonist Jason W. Marshall and trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt capture the essence of the past without coming off as affected, and the rest of the crew provides superb backing. The Great City may be a paean to New York on the surface, but it’s something more: it’s recorded evidence indicating that Hilary Garder is a superb singer deserving greater recognition.
– Dan Bilawsky