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For decades, a continuing debate within the factious jazz community is who are the authentic jazz singers. For the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, the judges were given these criteria:  control, time, swing, dynamics, concept, taste, originality, interaction with their rhythm section.

Omitted was a key element that all jazz singers - and instrumentalists - who have lasted possessed. Long ago, I would hear musicians asking about some players they hadn’t heard yet: “Can they tell a story?” That’s what Charlie Parker meant when he said that a jazz musician - in the act of creating - tells about just about everything he or she has experienced. And that “wisdom,” as Bird put it, becomes part of the music. 

Anna de Leon is one of more beguiling - and moving storytellers I’ve heard in a good many years. As for the criteria in the Thelonious monk competition, she has all of these; and because her musicianship is infused with her life stories, Anna evokes from the songs she chooses much more than their composers and lyricists could have imagined.

In this set, she moves the listener into a twilit groove that, I expect, will result in this recording being played often, at special times. As she says, this set “evolved from a desire to record some of my favorite songs, the ballads of rainy nights, the songs that light a candle on dark days.”

She brought into the studio musicians who, as she put it, “have the heart for these songs.” She and they, in two afternoons, acted on their knowledge that the essence of the jazz experience - for musician and listener - is spontaneity in both the playing and the continual sounds of surprise that music such as this gives listeners whenever they return to it. 

Neither Anna nor the other musicians wanted “to rehearse the life out of these songs.” So they were all done in one take, except for Black Coffee, which took two. Duke Ellington once told me that he greatly preferred to do no more than two or three takes because he said, “Otherwise, the music dies.”

As for Anna de Leon’s roots - where she comes from in the rainbow of sounds that formed her - she notes: “From the first time I heard them, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James, Bobby Bland, and too many more have touched me. And for gospel, Miss Mahalia, The Staples family (especially Roebuck and Mavis) , the Soul Stirrers, the early Mighty Clouds of Joy, and other quartets.” She adds: “My own music must be influenced by blues and gospel, even though I don’t hear the precise sound influences in my voice.”

But ti’s the soul thrust of blues and gospel that fuels the spirit in her voice; and the blues and gospel, after all, are at the core of the jazz that endures.

As for the pulse of jazz, Anna says, “I love the music, the endless possibility, the ‘conversation’ with the other musicians. When the sound itself is beautiful, and when the groove joins to the music, then, happy or sad, I love it and it can’t be denied.”

Her ability to tell compelling stories comes from an unusually diverse life. At U.C.L.A., she earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in art/philosophy. And in her twenties, as part of the jazz and poetry scene in Los Angeles, she sang in small clubs and later, with small combos in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as being the “chick singer” for the Delancy Street Jazz Band for a couple years. Also, she was part of a gospel trio.

But there was another life that joined with the music to give her more stories to tell. A graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, she was a civil rights lawyer for some twenty years. As she notes, Anna “represented literally thousands of political demonstrators and litigated police misconduct cases. Moreover, with her prodigious commitment to meaningful activism, Anna served two terms on the Berkeley School Board, was elected president twice, and her principles ignited fierce opposition. Anna, she recalls (who could forget?) “was the focus of hundreds of death threats which originated in Soldier of Fortune magazine because I led the fight for a high school curriculum that includes alternative to military service.”

Wherever she goes, she leaves change. For instance, she developed a legal education program that is used now in the local juvenile court - as an alternative to being placed behind bars. 

Anna raised a daughter, Aya, and parented several foster children. “I sing the children to sleep, to make work end more quickly and I sing in the car. I sing to stay alive.”

As if all of this would not have been enough for one biography, a quote from Billie Holiday in Billie’s biography that Anna read opened another dimension in her life. Billie has said, “All I ever wanted was a little place where I could serve good food and sing whenever I felt like it.” Ending her law practice, in 1997, Anna opened Anna’s Jazz Bistro in Berkeley, and moved it to a larger venue there in November 2004, calling it Anna’s Jazz Island.

A rather rare phenomenon in jazz, she is a club owner who, to say the least, identifies with the musicians. Every night, local players perform at Anna’s place, and she often sings with them. There is a weekly jam, hosted by the distinguished and distinctive guitarist, Calvin Keyes. The credo of this club is “all jazz, all ages welcome, all the time.”

Earlier, I pointed to Anna’s attraction to the conversation with other musicians that is the core of this music. So easeful and intimate is that “conversation” in this set that you become part of it - along with pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Peter Barshay, drummer Harold Jones, and on two memorable vocals, Taj Mahal. 

Having cited some of her blues and gospel influences, it’s worth adding - because her singing will, I expect, make you want to know even more about her - that her large list of jazz influences includes Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, Hoagy Carmichael, Joe Williams, Johnny Hartman and Cesaria Evora whose “Morna,” Anna says, “inspired this project.” And at the beginning, her father playing piano in her home led to her deep and deepening pleasure in Thelonious Monk, Otis Spann, Ray Charles, Hank Jones and Ed Kelley.

From the first track of “The Sweet Bittersweet,” it’s clear how Anna de Leon exemplifies what will keep jazz alive: so long as there are musicians who have the life experience to answer Duke Ellington’s song, “What Am I Here For?”

They knew why, as Anna de Leon does, and now you can share her stories.