Review by Brad Walseth
The other evening I was stuck in another of Chicago's famous traffic jams and popped vocalist Petra Van Nuis' CD, "A Sweet Refrain" into the player. Immediately, I was transported to my "happy place," as all cares, worries, smog and construction gridlock vanished with the sound of her sweet voice. This Cincinnati transplant is obviously inspired by American Songbook interpreters like Peggy Lee and Chris Connor, which would be cool enough, but she also brings some of Lady Day Billie Holiday's phrasing as well as a touch of Doris Day's innocence. And it is a winning combination.
Showing a knowledge of the great traditional singers, van Nuis manages to combine various influences into an original style all her own. And while van Nuis' lovely and nuanced vocals are the clear centerpiece, some of the credit for the success of this recording has to be given to the fine group of players accompanying her. Rhythm section mates Mike Schlick on drums and Joe Policastro both clearly understand how to support a singer the right way, while Policastro's arrangements are tasteful, yet exciting. Trombonist Russ Phillips and trumpet/flugelhornist Art Davis enliven the festivities, But it is guitarist Andy Brown, Petra's husband, who continually elicits applause with his exceptional ability to sensitively work in tandem with his wife. In fact the interplay between husband and wife is stunning throughout. Brown's playing is in the traditional mode, without effects or gimmicks and here he puts on a virtual clinic on how to play guitar in support of a singer, and his solos swing brightly.
From "Let There Be Love" to "In A Mellow Tone," van Nuis has chosen an interesting and highly entertaining group of standards to present. Some highlights for me include the luscious duet versions of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's "Soon it's Gonna Rain," and the haunting "Blame it on My Youth." Luis Bonfa and Carl Sigman's "A Day in the Life of a Fool," is given a compelling treatment that lingers, and the old chestnut "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face" sounds fresh and new. And Art Davis adds class and fire every time he blows a note on tunes like "Let There Be Love" and "Moonlight Becomes You." Finally, quite pleased to hear the lovely "Dansero," made famous by the aforementioned Ms. Day, given an appealing treatment that calls for repeated listening. For reviving a collection of great standards from the past, and giving them the treatment they deserve, this recording is a sweet refrain indeed.