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Jennifer Zetlan: Your Clear Eye 

CD Button Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon. Gordon, piano. Texts. Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0122

Recordings Your Clear Eye Cover 218
Critics Choice Button 1015

THERE ARE FEW MUSICAL collaborations as direct and purely distilled as those between a singer and a composer. And when a distinctive compositional aesthetic is matched by a musician whose voice and skills can articulate the music’s best qualities, it can be magic. On her first album, Your Clear Eye, soprano Jennifer Zetlan comes close to that transcendence in her interpretation of songs by composer Ricky Ian Gordon.

Gordon has a gift for writing concise, clear melodies, accentuating a conversational lyricism that has as much in common with the worlds of Broadway and pop as it does with art song. Yet there’s mysticism in Gordon’s chordal textures and shifting harmonic progressions, which imbues the music with complexity without alienating the listener. 

Gordon’s songs resonate most strongly when interpreted with clear-voiced optimism and resolve, qualities that Zetlan possesses unequivocally. Her bright, shimmering timbre seems to propel the songs forward, as Gordon accompanies her on the piano with conviction and sensitivity to the nuances of the singer’s phrasing and pacing.

Your Clear Eye includes the song cycle Too Few the Mornings Be, Gordon’s settings of poetry by Emily Dickinson. Zetlan captures the plainspoken beauty of the text, and Gordon brilliantly imbues the confessional tone of Dickinson’s words with warmth and approachability. “The Bustle in a House” reverberates with sincerity in its poignant take on death: “The sweeping up the heart / And putting love away / We shall not want to use again until eternity.”

Zetlan and Gordon excel at communicating the paradoxical dichotomy at work in Dickinson’s poetry, in which the delicate task of expressing emotional vulnerability is a show of strength. A highlight of the cycle is “Will There Really Be a Morning?,” which Zetlan interprets with charm and knowing tone. Her chiaroscuro shading of the melody fleshes out the complex combination of skepticism and optimism with which Dickinson approaches the human experience. Life tells us that happiness can be difficult to achieve, but the hope of achieving it is what drives humanity.

Zetlan’s performance on the album is at its most affecting when she is telling a story, as if weaving an intricate tapestry with focus and deliberation. Gordon’s “Two Monologues From Angels in America,” which bookend the Dickinson cycle, exemplify the singer’s skill in this regard. Whether romanticizing a new beginning in the isolation of “Antarctica” or describing a cathartic, spiritual experience during “Night Flight to San Francisco,” Zetlan evinces spellbinding charisma and fullness of heart as playwright Tony Kushner’s words speak to transcending the frailty of life toward something greater.

In a few instances, particularly during Too Few the Mornings Be, a straight-tone approach might have been more effective in communicating the simple profundity of the poetry. That said, Your Clear Eye boasts exceptionally beautiful music, and Zetlan’s steadfast, empathic approach to Gordon’s songs makes for listening that’s engaging and mesmerizing. —Daniel J. Kushner



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