by Will Friedwald

A few years ago, an American family, consisting of Rondi Charleston, her husband Steven, and their young daughter, Emma, made a trip to Israel. They visited the biblical land of Jerusalem – where Jews and Muslims live side by side, but, normally, their cohabitation, so to speak, is hardly harmonious. The land is, as Rondi describes it, an ancient battleground “where people sacrifice their souls / for the mysteries of faith and the battle is ever ongoing, waiting to erupt at the slightest provocation”.

While the three Americans were there, a wind came from the East, and then “the heavens opened up”: almost miraculously, it began to snow. Needless to say, this is an extremely rare occurrence in this part of the world. The local residents of both faiths – and both sides of the political and military divide – were so struck with shock and awe that, just for a brief interval, they somehow forgot how much they hated each other. At first they just they wouldn’t have believed you – as they stared up at the sky with a sense of wonder. When the snow started to accumulate, the children of both factions spontaneously began playing together in it (“A silvery playground as far as they could see”), and for a second they didn’t seem to care who was Arab. The snow became a kind of purifying force; just for this moment, the region was something other than what it had been yesterday and what it would be again tomorrow.If you had told anyone this was going to happen, they wouldn’t have believed you – as Rondi says, “Who could imagine this possibility?” I’ve tried to put it down in words for you just now, but this is a story that’s meant to be sung rather than read, performed rather than read, performed rather than written. Her original song, Land of Galilee (with music by Lynne Arriale) is as vivid a piece of musical storytelling as I’ve heard in a long while. She sets up the tale with a dramatic; rubato verse, and some long sustained notes with a pentatonic feeling – very mysterious and middle-eastern indeed. The mood lightens considerably when she gets into the meat of the narrative.

When she describes how the age-old enemies throw their swords Rondi sings with an open-eyed sense of it would be again wonder. (Even in the audio-only medium, you can quite literally see her eyes.) The tone of her voice fully conveys as much of the tale as her words themselves.

That’s the tune that most stands out for me in Who Knows Where the Time Goes, just as it did when I heard her sing it live at Dizzy’s (Jazz at Lincoln Center). At that time, she was celebrating the release of In My Life, a beautiful album that, like most vocal packages, was highly piano-centric. Here, however, the role of musical director is played by the outstanding guitarist Dave Stryker. It therefore follows that, even though two exceptional keyboardists are heard here on the current project, the overall outlook, between Charleston and Stryker, is considerably more guitar-driven than before and the repertory derives primarily from the period in American music when guitars were the dominant instrument.

Having said that, I am immediately contradicted by This Nearly Was Mine. This is the most spectacular feature for Dave’s guitar in the collec-tion, and it’s also the most traditional pop standard here. So even though the This Nearly smashes my theory to bits, I can’t complain, since it’s the loveliest and most creative ballad here. It may be a traditional show tune, but the interpretation is anything but conventional; this is the number one baritone “aria” from. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s most baritone-driven show, South Pacific, and even though there have been very different interpretations (like Bobby Darin’s swing treatment), it’s almost always presented as bigger-than-life and full of machismo. This Nearly- takes the form of a soliloquy in the show, but leading men always sing it as if they’re projecting to the balcony. Rondi’s is the most intimate treatment I’ve ever heard; for the first time the song seems completely inner-directed and reflective, as if she were in a conversation with herself.

The only other song by a pair of canonical Broadway composers (al-though it’s actually from the 1941 film Dancing on a Dime) is Frank Loesser and Burton Lane’s jazz standard I Hear Music. Even more than on This Nearly, this oldest song here gets the most imaginative, even far-out treatment. While singing all the correct words and maintaining the fundamental shape of the melody, Rondi is infinitely playful as she fragments the tune, deconstructs it and reconstructs it in her own image, all the while going back and forth with bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn. The remarkable thing is that Penn is such a melodic player that when he res sponds to Rondi’s charges you almost think you’re listening to a second bassist rather than a drummer.

Rondi recording Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Recorded  at Bennett Studios, Englewood, NJ On November 16, 17, 18, 2013
Produced by Suzi Reynolds and Rondi Charleston
Arrangements by Rondi Charleston and Dave Stryker
Arrangements for I Hear Music by Rondi Charleston and Rufus Reid
Zulu Translation of Freedom is A Voice by Prof. Elson Davison-Khumbule Columbia University
English Translation of Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser by Rondi Charleston
Arrangement for Who Knows Where The Time Goes by Dave Stryker and Pete Levin
Background vocals for Freedom is A VoiceEmma Charleston Ruchefsky, Bailey Claffey, and Sage Vouse
Additional background vocals – James Genus, Clarence Penn, Suzi Reynolds,
Mayra Casales, Brandon Mccune and Dave Stryker
Vocals: Rondi Charleston
Guitar: Dave Stryker 
Bass: James Genus 
Drums: Clarence Penn
Piano: Lynne Arriale 
Piano/Keys: Brandon Mccune 
Percussion: Mayra Casales 

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