In the summer of 2016, jazz singer-songwriter Joanna Wallfisch hit an emotional and artistic impasse. She had just released her third album, “Gardens in My Mind” (Sunnyside), but had grown weary of the hustle and bustle of urban life in New York and was daunted by the cost of going on tour to promote her latest recording. She was wondering where her adventurous spirit had gone.
Ms. Wallfisch, who is 33, resolved the situation in a most unusual way. She performed music from the album solo on the West Coast and got from gig to gig—a total of 1,154 miles from Portland to Los Angeles—carrying her instruments and a tent in bags strapped to her bicycle. She has chronicled the 16-concert, six-week journey in a book, “The Great Song Cycle: Portland to Los Angeles on Two Wheels and a Song,” which will be released by University of Western Australia Publishing in September, and she presented a 50-minute theatrical piece, “The Great Song Cycle Song Cycle,” at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018. Now there’s a new recording, “Far Away From Any Place Called Home” (Her Own Label).
Road trips as inspiration for entire albums are somewhat rare. One appropriate comparison is Joni Mitchell’s 1976 opus “Hejira” (Asylum), which was written during the great singer-songwriter’s solo automobile trip from Maine to California. Ms. Wallfisch is an ardent fan of Ms. Mitchell’s work (her YouTube page features a stunning cover of “All I Want”), and the singer’s crystalline voice brings to mind early recordings by that legendary songstress as well as the less heralded work of British jazz singer Norma Winstone.
But while many of Ms. Mitchell’s songs view the world warily, Ms. Wallfisch brings a wide-open sense of wonder to the lyrics on “Far Away From Any Place Called Home” and a bright, spry tone to its music. And no, she does not seem to tire.
The 14-track, 47-minute album begins with “When We Travel,” which parses the difference between dreams and the struggles to make them a reality. Then her chronicle of the road trip begins in earnest, with songs and spoken segments recounting the expedition with disarming cheerfulness. Ms. Wallfisch bikes by day and camps and couch surfs by night en route to Los Angeles. She reflects on sharing single malt scotch with a host she just met, deflecting the whimsical advances of a lifeguard, or the thrill of having the Pacific Ocean as a sidekick throughout. Her band on the recording includes reedman Oran Etkin and bassist Chris Tordini; Ms. Wallfisch plays baritone ukulele, melodica and toy piano, and on “Rex, the Traveling Dog” she takes a mean kazoo solo. She mostly encounters fellow outsiders, and the exchanges exhilarate her—so by the time she reaches Southern California, her ambivalence about the voyage’s end is understandable.
Ms. Wallfisch is from London, though she’s been in the U.S., spending time on both coasts, since 2012. Her family has a remarkable array of musical accomplishments. She is the daughter of two classical musicians, violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch and cellist Raphael Wallfisch; her grandmother Anita Lasker Wallfisch survived Auschwitz because she played cello in the camp orchestra. Her brother Simon is a cellist and opera singer; her other brother, Benjamin, is a Grammy-nominated film composer. She took an interest in jazz at age 11 when she heard Ella Fitzgerald sing “My Old Flame,” which inspired her ambitions.
In the crowded world of jazz vocals, Ms. Wallfisch may have found her niche. This September, she will embark on a second song cycle, this time biking in Australia from Brisbane to Hobart, with another recording and a second book in the works. She’s putting a new spin on music for a road trip.
—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.