Black-and-white movies were never more colorful or beguiling than during Hollywood's classic film noir era of the 1940s and '50s. Since its founding in the mid '80s by renegade bassist Charlie Haden, Quartet West has perfectly captured that same ambiance — specifically, florid emotions restrained by a veneer of sophistication and propriety — with a precision that sets the senses abuzz. This is especially true of the group's collaborations with vocalists — first on 1999's The Art of the Song and now Sophisticated Ladies.
The template involves six renowned female vocalists (including Norah Jones, Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson), recounting stages in a love affair via vintage songs that recall the debonair drama of the postwar late '40s and '50s, an Eisenhower era of stockings and martinis, freighted glances and deftly-pitched woo. In between these vocal numbers are six typically poised instrumentals from this longtime ensemble that cleanse the emotional palette for the next singer without breaking the mood.
Except for Norah Jones's woozy, soulful take on Harold Arlen's "Ill Wind," all the singers receive elegant support from a restrained string section arranged by Quartet West pianist Alan Broadbent, casting their vocals in exquisite relief. For their part, the "ladies" unearth tender nuances without harshness or fragility (although Krall, either by design or a strained range, is a bit too breathy on "Goodbye"). Probably the most obscure vocalist here, Melody Gardot, sets an indelible mood with a measured yet dreamy, nearly-whispered rendition of "If I'm Lucky," set up by Ernie Watts's voluptuous tenor sax. After a sinuous and savory instrumental take on Duke Ellington's title track, and Jones's number, the quartet digs into the collection's most uptempo song, Steve Kuhn's mid '60s tune "Today I Am A Man," with drummer Rodney Green (whose seven-year tenure makes him the group's junior member) making like Gene Krupa on a closing solo. The low, dulcet tones of Cassandra Wilson mesh well with Haden's extended solo on Johnny Mercer's "My Love and I," and the "Theme From Markham" instrumental belong to pianist Broadbent and his fans. The best two-song combination on the entire disc begins with a stunning version of "A Love Like This," the theme song for the 1943 movie For Whom The Bell Tolls, sung by Renée Fleming. Known primarily as an operatic soprano, Fleming glides over the musical scale with a keen appreciation for jazz dynamics and rhythm, and a potent, concentrated sentimental flame. Haden's penetrating bass workout on the ensuing "My Old Flame" is the perfect aperitif.