What We Leave Behind by Soul Basement and Jay Nemor – unabashed positivity and unrestrained candor

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The Music and Myth starts off 2017 with good vibes and a great big serving of soul courtesy of What We Leave Behind. This upbeat, high-spirited collaboration between Italian musician Soul Basement and American/Icelandic singer-saxophonist Jay Nemor served as a welcome break from my month-long study of John Zorn’s catalog, its smooth, simple, old-school sound in stark contrast with Zorn’s complex, eclectic avant-garde experimentation.

There’s neither experimentation nor much metaphor in this live studio recording, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear, powerful message. I received the album for review from Fabio Puglisi, the man behind the Soul Basement project, who described it as “all about jazz, soul and those good old-fashioned moods, yet still looking towards the future”. This forward-looking is achieved through to-the-point, socially conscious lyrics by Nemor as well as a delivery that aptly switches from impassioned to delicate, remaining hopeful and determined throughout.

The first words the listener gets to hear are definitely meant to establish the tone the artists wish to grant the recording: “Got a smile on my face, things are going my way, I’m doing fine.”

Though not nearly as memorable as a “No Love Dying” or a “Code Cool”, this simple, self-explanatory track succeeds in marking a clear direction for the rest of the record and getting the listener in a persistent feel-good mood. The song’s major revelation is Nemor’s deep, spellbinding voice. Whether it’s his soulful singing or his unambiguous spoken-word interludes, the vocalist’s delivery is a constant high point throughout the record, adding gravitas to a playlist that might otherwise have felt too light. His unabashed positivity and unrestrained candor carry over to the second track, “Noise Pollution”, which seems poised to become the album’s anthem, with its funky beat and resounding contemporary message.

Talking loud ain’t saying nothing

Tired of all these politicians faking and fronting

Misleading the people with destructive illusions

It’s a foregone conclusion

That we gotta find some kind of solution

Telling all them lies

just to get inside

So that they can do

Not a thing they promised to

For me and you

What else can we do

A change is overdue

Nemor’s frankness is both his strength and his weakness as a lyricist, with effective songs like “Noise Pollution” countervailed by the likes of “It’s Time”.

Even after countless have stood at the frontline

time after time after time

to show us the way to a better day

yet still here we are looking for a new leader to come and save the day

Does another have to put their life on the line

in hopes that we will finally make up our mind

to develop a collective mind set

so that we can fight, proclaim and protect

our human rights

which when you think about it’s a damn shame we even have to fight

for our so called inherent God given birthright

Here, the writer’s lack of subtlety translates to an articulation that falls dangerously close to preaching and distracts from an otherwise well-crafted song. As a lyricist, Nemor is at his best when delivering simple, heartfelt statements such as “With You”, a beautiful, unassuming ballad à la Gregory Porter, with captivating instrumentation and exceptionally tender vocals.

“Love Will Find You” again features – as they say in writing – a bit too much telling and too little showing. However, the somewhat flawed lyrics are outweighed by a catchy dynamic arrangement and a short but fresh-sounding saxophone solo, making it a more-than-enjoyable listen.

“The Joy Inside”, with its lively percussion and crisp vocals is an understated gem while “Angel of Mine”, a gorgeous ballad wherein Nemor does his absolute best work, wouldn’t be out of place in Barry White’s repertoire – high praise for any soul musician. To me, this is the highlight of the record and a truly memorable moment.

The soft, nostalgic “Future Reminiscence”, a spoken-word serenade to bygone times and enduring memories sounds unspectacular at first, but its heartfelt message, smooth sax and low-key vibe leave a pleasant aftertaste and a general feeling of well-being to close the record.

Crafted with care and obvious dedication to the spirit of modern jazz and soul, What We Leave Behind is a heartfelt effort with a strong, consistent message, an endlessly charismatic vocalist and a couple of outstanding compositions. The duo of Soul Basement and Jay Nemor clearly possess great chemistry. There’s a multitude of ways for them to further cultivate this successful collaboration and I’m looking forward to hearing the future fruits of their labor. Recommended by The Music and Myth!

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The Epic by Kamasi Washington – a bold statement from a self-confident author

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Nobody can accuse American composer and jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington of lacking ambition. His debut album, titled The Epic, spans eighteen tracks and roughly three hours of music, running the gamut from heartfelt evocations of jazz legends from the past, to fresh-sounding compositions that incorporate everything from funk to R&B. It is as if the thirty-four-year-old musician –who stated that the record was inspired by a dream – wrote it with a very clear idea of where exactly he wanted it positioned in music history.

In spite of the composer’s declared goal of “bringing jazz to the uninitiated” (or perhaps because of it), The Epic opens with a flagrant throwback, as Washington channels the spirit of John Coltrane in the playfully titled “Change of the Guard”. There are no intros or ECM-like warm-up tunes on this record. Washington starts off strong with a catchy piano, crisp drums, a powerful sax and the addition of a choir for added sentiment. From the start, it’s clear that this is a supremely extroverted work that also manages to be cautious and contemplative.

Only a minute into the record the listeners are already treated to an excellent piano solo by Cameron Graves – an early highlight. It becomes rapidly clear that The Epic was composed with grandeur in mind – a very bold statement from a self-confident author.

Normally in The Music and Myth I try to look at every track and analyze its narrative construction, but the sheer volume of music on this record would make that time-consuming and ultimately boring to the reader, so I’ll stick to a broader thematic overview.

The soundscape is immensely varied, an atlas of the classical and modern jazz world with stunning attention to detail and a plethora of information, though ultimately lacking in true novelty. The last statement is not really a criticism. The Epic isn’t about shaping the future of jazz with a cutting edge sound, but rather encompassing the essence of its past and present. Those who were led here by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, on which Washington was featured, are in for a big surprise. Hopefully, they’ll stick around and discover the depths of this multi-layered work.

The lengthy tracks – many of which are over the 10-minute mark – give the listener ample time to get truly immersed in the composer’s vision. The record also benefits from a seamless progression from one track to the next, which helps the narrative dynamic (best exemplified by the tidal transition from “Isabelle” to “Final Thought”). The latter also contains a fantastic performance by Washington, whose talent as a composer has, so far, overshadowed his actual playing. A high-octane delivery by Washington over Leon Mobley’s frenzied percussions makes the “shorter” (only six minutes long) “Final Thought” one of the record’s highlights.

On “Askim”, look for an entertaining electric bass solo from Thundercat, who generally delivers in spades on this monumental record, as he is wont to do. “Askim” is also a great example of the dramatic effect achieved by the choir, especially coupled with Washington’s and Ronald Bruner Jr’s intense sax and drums (respectively) towards the end of the song.

My favorite track from the first disc – Volume One: The Plan – has to be “The Rhythm Changes”, for the simplicity of its message and the fact that it is something rare in today’s quality music scene: a genuinely uplifting tune. I really enjoyed Patrice Quinn’s even vocals. Some reviewers have commented on a perceived ‘lack of passion’ from the vocalist but I thought her timing and energy matched the spirit of the song and any other approach would have been dissonant.

Volume Two: A Glorious Tale, starts with the climactic “Miss Understanding” spearheaded by Miles Mosely’s acoustic bass. The highlights are “Leroy and Lanisha” for its hip, downtown retro-vibe and funky rhythm,  “Seven Prayers” for its Miles Davis-charm and the closer, “The Magnificent 7” for it’s awesome tension on piano. Meanwhile, the second volume’s sole vocal track “Henrietta our Hero”, again with Patrice Quinn on vocals, sounds like it translates best to a live rendition. On the recording it falls just short of achieving the poignancy it seems to try to convey.

Volume 3: The Historic Repetition starts off in a different way, with an old school funk-feel and hypnotic horns via “Re Run Home” and includes some interesting covers of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and Ray Noble’s “Cherokee”. I also enjoyed the beautiful Patrice Quinn/ Dwight Trible duet on the tender tribute to Malcolm X, “Malcolm’s Theme”, easily the best of the vocal tracks. Trible’s voice is exceptionally evocative, making it a great fit for this respectful tribute.

Though it feels like the least cohesive of the trio, Volume Three ends on a high note with “The Message”, one of the best tracks for its remarkable energy. All in all, The Epic is a beautifully unconstrained record that never becomes tiresome, in spite of its length.

Even on the very first listen, I was certain that this album would be a shoo-in for a 2016 Grammy nomination. I should have known better! Once again, the NARAS proves it has its head up its ass, overlooking this splendid work much like it did Patricia Barber’s Smash in 2013, easily one of the best records of the past ten years in any genre.

Well, fear not! Even though I’ve had to put The Music and Myth on hiatus for a few months due to working on my novels, the third annual Music and Myth Awards are still scheduled for January 2016 and Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is a deserving frontrunner.