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CD Review: Carla Zilbersmith “Extraordinary Renditions” (Breathe Productions)
By Don Heckman
Sept. 22, 2008

Carla Zilbersmith may be too talented, too versatile for her own good.

How else to explain why this extraordinary artist has had such relatively low national visibility, never signed with a major label, other than to say that she’s been spreading her abilities too generously in every direction. .

Her credits reach from performances with the Boston Philharmonic to small group jazz, pop and folk; from sketch comedy to her one-woman musical “Wedding Singer Blues; from her work as Artistic Director of the College of Marin Drama Department to fifteen years of appearances in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Canada. Add to that, her continuing performances in and around her Bay area home, and the release of this richly diverse, perfectly titled CD.(obtainable online at www.cdbaby.com/carlazilbersmith).

So that’s a handful, right? But there’s one more thing. In December of 2007, Carla was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) - perhaps best known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Which, she says, “sucks, because I hate baseball.”

“I’d really rather have been diagnosed with a basketball disease,” she told an audience shortly after receiving the diagnosis. “Maybe with Wilt Chamberlain Disease. That’s the one where you have sex 20,000 times and then you die.” It’s the kind of black humor that has characterized her subsequent comments, in performance, as well as on her extraordinary blog, CarlaMuses, at http://carlamuses.blogspot.com, in which she “writes about life, art, politics and the things that scare her.”

“Extraordinary Renditions” was completed before she was informed of the ALS diagnosis, but it is largely the product of another life-transforming event, the end of her twenty year marriage to saxophonist Michael Zilber. The songs, she says, “chronicle that journey to some extent,” but there is no mournful feeling of loss, either in the selection of material or the ambience of the performance. And Zilber, a versatile saxophonist, performs on several tracks and has written many of the arrangements — provided, says Carla, at “the special ‘separated spouse discount’.”

The CD arrived after I’d become aware of Carla’s ALS, although I’d heard some earlier material on line, before I was told of the diagnosis. Yet, in both cases, it was almost impossible to hear her singing within the framework of a terminal illness. Quite simply, “Extraordinary Renditions” is a collection of jazz-based, but stylistically far-reaching vocal performances by a talent that should have been in the middle of the view screen years ago.

The high points are too numerous to mention. But listen closely to the coolly swinging transformation of Prince’s “Kiss,” the utterly convincing r & b vamps on Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me,” Pee Wee Ellis’ “Cold Sweat” and her own “Bluesy Wisdom” (savor every word), her atmospheric rendering of the traditional Celtic tune “She Moves Through the Faire,” and the intimate sensitivity she brings to Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.”

It’s all delivered via a vocal instrument that is astonishingly pliable. Saucily assertive, soaringly lyrical, boisterously witty – whatever a lyric demands – issued over an irresistibly dynamic rhythmic flow. She is, by any definition, the real deal, one of a kind, interacting superbly with the loving musical backing of pianist John R. Burr, bassist Jon Evans and drummer David Rokeach.

Carla has another CD in the works, on the “fast track” – a necessity, given the progression of the ALS. But she still has “miles to go” (to quote Carl Sandburg), and lucky Los Angelenos will have the rare opportunity to hear her in a live performance on Friday, Oct. 3. Here’s the information.

“A Carla-Bration,” Friday, Oct. 3rd at 8:00pm * Parlor Performances at Steinway Hall, 12121 W. Pico Blvd., under Fields Pianos on level P2.