Though Macy Gray is a multi-platinum/Grammy award winning pop artist, she thinks of herself as a jazz singer. Performing with jazz bands is how she got her start, and it’s what Gray does on her new Chesky Records release Stripped, a collection of reimagined songs from her catalog, three new originals and two covers. “My style of music is really jazz, even if you listen to ‘I Try,’” she says, referring to the Grammy-winning hit song from her 1999 debut, which made Gray a household name. “That’s how I learned to sing, in jazz bands with a piano player and a drummer and a bassist, playing brunches and little jazz rooms at 3 in the morning.”
She brings that intimate, late-night feel to Stripped, opening the album with the subtly searing new tune “Annabelle” and turning “I Try” into a glimmering study in muted guitar, anchored by an authoritative upright bass part. It’s one of five previously recorded songs that Gray and an ace band reinterpret. “Sweet Baby” becomes taut and urgent, “Slowly” unfolds into a slow-burner, “The First Time” has a torchy elegance and “She Ain’t Right for You” bobs along on an airy reggae backbeat. It’s not the only reggae touch on Stripped: Gray sings with aching sensitivity on a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” which she calls “the best song ever written.” She drew from a very different sensibility for the other cover: Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” A brooding statement of defiance as recorded by the heavy metal band takes on a different resonance through Gray. “The arrangement of it is in three, so it’s got this kind of gospel backbeat to it, which is so far away from heavy metal,” she says. “The instruments are stand-up bass and piano, so you get at that really sad thing. It’s a whole different song in that arrangement. I think it’s really beautiful.”
The musicians who perform on Stripped arranged the songs. Gray first met them — drummer Ari Hoenig (Joshua Redman), trumpeter Wallace Roney (Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis), guitarist Russell Malone (Diana Krall) and bassist Daryl Johns — when the band assembled to rehearse with the singer. They began recording the next day in a deconsecrated church in Brooklyn, where everyone played live around a single microphone. It took just two days to record the 10 songs on the album.