Olden Voice: On her new album, Lena Seikaly takes on vintage jazz tunes.
Olden Voice: On her new album, Lena Seikaly takes on vintage jazz tunes.

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D.C. jazz singer Lena Seikaly is known for her luscious way with harmonies, but you have to strip them away to hear just how good she really is. “Love You Madly,” set deep into Looking Back—Seikaly’s exploration of neglected tunes from the 1920s and ’30s—features the D.C. vocalist in a plain-faced duet with bassist Zack Pride. Her control, precision, and phenomenal time are easy to hear, and if the warm read of Duke Ellington’s lyrics doesn’t do the trick, she also takes three separate scat breaks.

The devil’s in the voice and bass interaction on those breaks. Particularly in the opening one, they land accents that seem poised to diverge—only to resolve the tension just as you begin to perceive it. There’s more consonance in the other breaks, but Seikaly just relocates the friction to a virtuosic pitch bend on the lyric-capping “madly” (which she holds for a full measure).

Seikaly rolled back the harmony on Looking Back not to show off, but to focus on the songs themselves. Often, the results are surprising. It’s tough to compete with Billie Holiday when it comes to melancholy, but on “I Cover the Waterfront,” Seikaly actually one-ups Lady Day’s famous version. She scarfs Chris Grasso’s impressionistic piano and Lenny Robinson’s misty brushwork lightly around her, depicting the song’s sad yearning with a soft croon and almost no tweaks to the melody as written. Grasso here proves himself perhaps the scene’s best vocal accompanist, dotting Seikaly with scattered chords and a moody solo that reflects her oaky contralto.

Even better is the darker “Supper Time,” Irving Berlin’s haunting portrait of a lynched man’s wife. Grasso, the lone instrumentalist, casts shadows for Seikaly’s voice; she, meanwhile, finds nuance in the wife’s thoughts of her children. She’s at a low moan, not much above a whisper, singing “How’ll I keep explaining when they ask me where he’s gone?” in the song’s bridge; by the end of those lines, she’s battling to contain a crescendo of grief, crying, “How can I be thankful when they start to thank the Lord?” Seikaly’s majesty on the tune is nearly unbearable.

Her crack quintet—guitarist Paul Pieper along with Grasso, Pride, and Robinson—is impressively no-frills, considering the fireworks each can achieve. There is something amusing in Pieper’s antique, four-to-the-bar chords on “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone”: They were designed for acoustic guitar or banjo, and hearing them on electric is unexpected. But it makes sense, establishing Pieper without being obtrusive and nicely bolstering Seikaly. The only possible disadvantage is that it lays bare a vocal quirk in the singer: She softens her R’s into W’s, which, once heard, can’t be unheard. But that’s like looking for chipped paint on the Mona Lisa: Looking Back remains the work of a supremely confident master of her instrument.