There was a time when I would call Tamara Kuldin on the phone, hoping that she wouldn’t answer. That’s because her voicemail message is a Billie Holiday recording – a few seconds of it, that is – and I’d made a quest out of identifying it. I’m fairly familiar with the Billie Holiday repertoire, but I was stuck — at first I thought that it was ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, but I was wrong, which made it all the more frustrating. Finally, I realised it was ‘Lover Come Back to Me’ and managed to find peace since.
‘Lover Come Back to Me’ found its way into Tamara Kuldin’s latest album, This May Only Be A Dream and serves as a great case study on both the endurance and the perennial appeal of the great American songbook and the way it can be put into context by a great artist.
Every jazz singer, at one point in their musical journey, will find themselves measuring up against Billie Holiday, and although I don’t think that this is what is happening in this instance, it’s interesting to compare the two versions.
Billie Holiday being Billie Holiday, sings this tune with this utter sense of despair and loneliness; she’s haunted by the absence of her lover and the fond memories of their time together further enhance her feeling of longing and loss. Her rendition is unmistakably heart wrenching.
Tamara Kuldin’s interpretation could not be more different. All the elements are there: nostalgia; bitterness; loneliness; betrayal; but there is also hope, and tenderness and emotional maturity, and the confidence of a woman of our times. Adding layers of nuance to the song’s narrative, she tells the story of a betrayed woman who can nonetheless stand on her own two feet, who embraces her past and is ready to face the future.
To put it bluntly: when Billie Holiday sings “lover, come back to me,” she knows that her lover is never coming back; when Tamara Kuldin sings the same words, she is confident that love awaits round the corner, that happiness is down the road — and it does not depend on any lover. She just deserves it.
There are many other classic ballads in This may only be a dream — ‘In the Still of the Night’, ‘Where or When’, ‘For All We Know’, to name a few — all delivered with the same kind of emotional maturity, tenderness and bittersweet contemplation that permeates the whole album.
For an album filled with gems of the Great American Songbook, it is telling that the songs that mostly stand out are Tamara Kuldin’s original compositions. ‘Maisie’s song’ in particular, has all it takes to become a modern classic – a sweet, catchy melody; simple, honest lyrics; a warm, compelling delivery by a vocalist at the top of her game. It is one of the less ‘jazzy’ songs of the album, of course, falling more into the ‘European folk’ category, the type that Tamara Kuldin has been performing with her cosmopolitan ‘Nostalgique’ outfit.
Most of this band’s regular members are among the stellar group of musicians supporting the singer — a true dream team of Melbourne jazz, featuring Julien Wilson on sax; Steve Grant on trumpet and accordion; Sam Keevers on piano; the late, great Jon Delaney, sharing guitar duties with Nathan Slater; Tamara Murphy on bass; Danny Fischer on the drum kit; and Lisa Miller, in a special guest vocalist spot.
Despite the jazz credentials of the band, this collection of dreamy, romantic, lightly swinging tunes is generally less ‘jazz’ than Tamara Kuldin’s previous albums, although what the term ‘jazz’ means nowadays is up for debate. Still, the arrangements and performance could not be a better fit for the overall romantic tone of the album, which is a far cry from the sassy flirtation of Secret Love, and rather closer to the nurturing embrace of Love, Longing & Lullabies. These two works might have been centered around two very clear concepts – the female archetypes of the Lover and the Mother – but This may only be a dream is blurring these lines, because that is what happens in real life. This is a story of a woman, at times fragile and sad, at times confident and happy, always real.
PS. I started this piece on a personal note, and I will finish it in the same way. I got my hands on this album a couple of weeks before Melbourne entered the long, exhausting lockdown of 2020. This little disc was playing on a loop in my car, in my home and in my head, beaming rays of light that cut through the darkness and gloom and uncertainty. And for this, I’m forever grateful to my friend Tamara Kuldin.