When soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom plays Kurt Weill's "My Ship" on her new album Sixteen Sunsets, a pale glow around her notes comes from a simple special effect: pointing her horn under the hood of a piano whose strings are free to resonate. Bloom has always been preoccupied with sound, and has one of the prettiest, clearest tones around on soprano. She never sounds better than in ballads, and on Sixteen Sunsets she plays more than a dozen, including a few associated with Billie Holiday. You can tell Bloom knows the words to "Good Morning Heartache," even when her phrases depart from the lyric.
Billie Holiday is a good role model for how to vary and honor a melody at once; how to put in heart and bring out the blues. Jane Ira Bloom can tap into the soprano's piercing quality, but her default tone is round and overtone-rich. It's almost as pure as a classical saxophonist's, but Bloom the jazz musician may custom-tailor each note, inflecting it with a distinct vibrato or shading the pitch. She may let a note linger or clip it short, play it clean or coarse, or ascend to her steely high register.
Bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Matt Wilson keep those slow tempos moving on Sixteen Sunsets. The younger Brooklyn pianist Dominic Fallacaro has the sweet and sweeping stuff down, but I wish he always caught the bluesy undercurrents in the standard ballads, the way he does in Billie Holiday tunes like "Left Alone."
One reason Bloom's ballads are usually so effective is the contrast with her fast numbers. On Sixteen Sunsets, only a couple of songs outrun or even approach a medium tempo. One of those is her oldie "Ice Dancing," a bright tune with a tango tinge and an ending that's catchy like a mousetrap snapping shut.
In the long run, this program of non-stop beautiful ballads starts to seem like too much of a good thing. Yeah, that's right — we're complaining about an overabundance of riches.