By Jonathan Schwartz
Many years ago, Reggae artist Jimmy Cliff recorded a song of his own, Sitting in Limbo, that I fondly recall. It's a song about ambivalence, about being neither here nor there. It's also the title of Jessica Molaskey's moving new CD, which considers the relationships between men and women from the point of view of gray, rather than black and white. That ambivalent area is, after all, where many of us spend our romantic lives, with flashes of "sadness or euphoria," as Billy Joel writes in Summer, Highland Falls, a song Jessica sings so reflectively on Sitting in Limbo.
What we have here is a Broadway Baby, a woman in her 40s who has lent service as a singer, dancer, or actress to numerous excessive shows, from Cats to Les Misérables, as well as worked with the theater's most prestigious creators, Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim. In 1997, in a flop called Dream, a whirling, ill-conceived tribute to America's most prolific lyricist, Johnny Mercer, Molaskey met John Pizzarelli. Son of the famous guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, John is himself a world-class guitarist and, through the years, has become an excellent pop singer. Jessica's marriage to John flourished over their shared devotion to Madeleine, their only child (now 9), and with the daily encouragement they brought to one another.
Jessica pushed him out there, as the brilliant musician he is, as the extraordinary mimic he has always been, and as the extemporaneous vaudevillian he has so naturally become. In turn, John maneuvered her into recording studios for what has become a series of four ironic and cerebral albums, the first of which, Pentimento, was gently presented to me through earphones on an airplane (I didn't know it existed) as John Pizzarelli and I flew to Las Vegas for a radio convention five years ago.
There it was, an absolutely original sound, a point of view realized by a quiet presentation of recognizable old songs: When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along and I'm Just Wild About Harry, among others.
In time, Jessica joined the John Pizzarelli Quartet, although not on every gig, to provide self-deprecating warmth and occasionally keep her goofily spontaneous husband in check. All the while her CDs sold consistently, and now, in the spring of 2007, comes a sobering consideration of the subtext of marriage, both the sadness and the euphoria.
Listen to her rendition of Hearts and Bones, a song tied to its creator, Paul Simon, and until now never recorded on an album by another major artist. Aided only by the spare guitar of Pizzarelli, Jessica sings from a feminine and melancholy perspective.
Jessica and John wind Joni Mitchell's Circle Game and Antonio Carlos Jobim's Waters of March around each other, supplying depth to both. Her There'll Never Be Another You is nothing short of a poignant wail of regret and longing.
There is so much else to relish on Sitting in Limbo. The CD will be released on May 8 by PS Classics, and Jessica will perform with John at New York's Cafe Carlyle in May. Expect to hear much of her CD and, I'm told, a related number she did not record on the album: Stephen Sondheim's truthful song about marriage, Sorry Grateful.
Serious business. Wonderful music.
Jonathan Schwartz hosts High Standards, a channel on XM Satellite Radio, as well as weekend shows on WNYC-FM, a New York public radio station.