Released in 2014, "The Classic" by Joan as Police Woman, the working name of Joan Wasser, had a snaking, careening sense of the free form as she nodded to soul's bygone days with compositions and arrangements that were gritty and sweet. Its tracks arriving with a punch, it was a recording that wasn’t easy to categorize, but it was an absolute treat, courtesy of a gifted singer who conveyed joy and sorrow in equal measure.
Wasser’s band featured crackling performances from Parker Kindred, whose drumming was just about the album's co-star, and the versatile keyboard player and producer Tyler Wood, whose synth bass contributed to a dense, rubbery bottom. Trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonists Briggan Krauss and Doug Wieselman added a classic soul punch or, as in the unexpected coda of "What Would You Do," a moaning lament. Wasser played keyboards, guitar and strings throughout the disc. One gripe might’ve been that "The Classic" didn't have enough of Ms. Wasser alone, accompanied only by her piano or violin.
"The Classic" came to be after a duets record with David Sylvian fell through. She hunkered down in her Brooklyn loft to write, and turned to old-school soul and R&B, her affection for which was displayed on her previous four discs, most notably on her 2006 debut, "Real Life." The new album's opening moments revealed its commitment to soul, but also her approach to writing and arrangement: "Witness" kicked off with a funky drum pattern and an organ lick, yet what joined in next wasn’t a blast of horns but plucked strings. In the bridge, violins spiraled wildly under her voice. If the song ended up in Dap-Kings territory, it got there by its own route.
Another valuable contributor to "The Classic" was Reggie Watts, who scatted over the extended instrumental outro of "Holy City"; in the audacious title track, he provided the beat box for a street-corner doo-wop number that featured Wasser singing with Joseph Arthur, Stephanie McKay, Toshi Reagon and Michele Zayla.
Wasser's “The Classic” wasn’t the breakthrough it should have been. Her career path, which also includes stints with Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright's band, continues to zig and zag. She’s yet to release another album, but her concert dazzle with her voice, instrumental versatility, energy and presence. And she steals the show as a guest star: In 2013, she made an unforgettable appearance at BAM in John Cale’s tribute to Nico. Three years later, she did the same at a daylong tribute to Lou Reed at Lincoln Center. With “The Classic,” she presented her witty and soulful side, to a delightful end.