A 24-year-old jazz singer does not typically make an album debut with a set composed entirely of originals. If only as a nod and a name-check to your predecessors, you would include some of the Great American Songbook standards or something by one of the great jazz composers.
Allegra Levy’s new album, “Lonely City” (SteepleChase LookOut Records), suggests that its creator is not a typical 24-year-old jazz singer.
“There’s some fear that people won’t respond to the songs because they’re unfamiliar,” Levy said in a telephone interview last week from her family home in West Hartford, Conn. “My [live] set is usually a lot of arrangements of standards with a couple of originals thrown in. Standards have always been my home base.”
She knows the risk.
“If it comes to radio play for a new album by a singer, it’s the standard that gets played,” she noted. “I knew it was going to be risky and presumptuous, because I’m 24 and fairly new, but I have about 25 tunes of my own and I thought, this is my chance to say something to the world, and I already have these tunes I love and they’re a pure form of self-expression. … It would almost be more of a gamble to record only standards.”
That said, Levy’s songwriting chops are pretty impressive, ranging from a mellifluous, Joni Mitchell-like pop ballad, “Everything Green,” to a Blue Note Latin swinger, “I Don’t Want to Be in Love.” The tunes and harmonies are interesting enough to engage her band members and audience fully, and the lyrics are clever and smart.
Levy was in town last week, launching the new CD with a one-night-only gig at the Cornelia Street Café; then she did a whirlwind tour of the Hartford area, where she grew up, had Thanksgiving with her parents, who are writers, and her brother, a baritone sax player and jazz journalist. Then it’s back to Hong Kong.
That’s where Levy has been the featured performer at the Blue Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel since July 4. The gig was originally scheduled to end in late September, but Levy was so well received that her contract was extended through February.
What’s it like being Jewish in Hong Kong?
“I grew up in an ethnically Jewish household, went to a Solomon Schechter school as a kid, had a bat mitzvah, but I wasn’t an avid temple goer,” she said. “In Hong Kong it’s been even harder. There are only about 2,000 self-identified Jews; the [organized] community is Conservative. There are certainly moments when I’ve felt lonely or misunderstood.”
The gig itself is “good [but] not as creatively fulfilling as New York,” she said. “It takes a little bit longer for stuff to get there; it’s not much of a home for the [musically] progressive. But I wasn’t getting the consistency in New York and Boston [where she was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music] in terms of having a band to develop material with, the same people, the collaborative communicative thing.”
Now she is also getting the kind of on-the-job experience that a jazz musician needs. And Levy is quick to add that the learning process is far from over, concluding, “I’m always learning.”