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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Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley – a beautiful record in the songwriter’s creative comfort zone

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It might be interesting to note that, over the last two weeks, I’ve been working on two reviews pretty much in parallel. One was Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution, the other is this week’s entry, Take Me to the Alley by Gregory Porter.

On paper, these records have a lot in common. Both are 2016 releases by musicians whose careers have really taken off in the last few years. Though it can be argued that Esperanza’s level of fame transcends the inconspicuous jazz niche turning her into a superstar of pop music proportions, in the jazz genre, she and Gregory are both household names. Both the records’ predecessors have earned Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album (Radio Music Society in 2013 and Liquid Spirit in 2014).

Still, the artists’ approach could not be more different. Esperanza retreated to the memory of her earliest artistic aspirations to find her inner “Emily” and release a work that distinguished, knowledgeable jazz reviewers have called “intense, intelligent and intrepid” (*wink*).  Meanwhile, Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley sounds like it could have easily been Disc 2, had Liquid Spirit been a double album.

If the songs were shuffled and you had never before heard a Gregory Porter tune, you’d probably have a hard time telling which songs belong together. Now, given that Liquid Spirit is one of the best vocal jazz records of the last decade, this uniformity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was the first thing I noticed upon playing the album.

In my opinion, “Holding On” is a bit of an unfortunate choice for an opening track. I can see the reasoning behind it, as it’s a reworked, heavily porterized version of his collaboration with British electronic music duo Disclosure. However, given that his two previous records had some of the most impactful opening tracks of any record in any genre in recent memory (I’m talking, of course, about “Painted on Canvas” and “No Love Dying”), the rather unspectacular “Holding On” seems like an uninspired choice. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that Gregory Porter is simply incapable of producing a song that couldn’t be described as warm and beautiful. But “Holding On” just doesn’t compare to its predecessors on any level.

Unfortunately, “Don’t Lose Your Steam” does little to pick up the pace, in spite of its inspiring lyrics, dedicated to Porter’s young son. Already, even the track placement is reminiscent of his previous record, with “Holding On” and “Don’t Lose Your Steam” playing the parts of “No Love Dying” and “Liquid Spirit” but failing to evoke their dynamism and raw emotion. Two songs in, Take Me to the Alley sounds like it runs the risk of becoming merely a collection of Liquid Spirit B-sides.

Then, along comes the title track to save the day – an absolutely superb ballad right up there with the best Porter has ever produced. With instantly recognizable piano chords, the vocalist’s warm, honest delivery, beautiful lyrics that hint at the second coming without becoming excessively clerical and perfect harmony vocals by Alicia Olatuja, this should have absolutely been the opening song. Anyone who thinks otherwise might claim to know music, but has little understanding of storytelling.

“Day Dream” is a decent song made good by the warm, love-filled poetry, as Porter affectionately observes his son Demyan in the child’s imagined environment.

He’s satisfied to dream his whole life away

Candy coated castles life of play

Broomsticks are his magic cars

Climb aboard and you’ll ride the stars

Do you remember it seems like yesterday

Getting older

Growing taller

Getting smarter

He’ll find his way

Rocket ships that never leave his hand

But he’s in space ‘cos he’s a rocket ship man

Got to fight in some galaxy wars

Climb aboard and you’ll ride the stars

Got to get home to kiss his mama goodnight

By now, the listener can recognize the typical Gregory Porter set up even in the instrumentation, which his long-time band makes sure is always smooth and homogeneous, if at times formulaic. Compared to Esperanza, who seems to be on the path of experimenting with various facets of her artistry, Porter has found his musical comfort zone and is content to keep the same creative direction. Because he is an indisputably gifted songwriter, with an incredibly warm, poignant timbre, an innate feel for conveying emotion and a capable band, he is never in danger of becoming monotonous, even if he’ll also never be accused of being avant-garde.

“Day Dream” is followed by “Consequence of Love” which serves to remind the audience that, even though he delivers swinging RnB with the same poise and dedication, Porter’s forte is still his uncanny talent for producing pitch-perfect ballads.

The record’s dynamic switches with the catchy and clever “In Fashion”, one of the highlights for its punchy piano, ear-pleasing melody and witty poetry.

We’re never caught in picture frames

The paparazzi know our names

They know like fashion

Our love is not for real

The weathers fine but in your mind

You need that flare and so you wear

Big blue fur and feathered hair

To fit your skin

Think I better let it go

Think I better let it go

Cos I’m thinking I’m last year’s runway passion

No longer in fashion

And I find myself obsessed

By how you dress

And whom you see when you’re without me

Dedicated to his late mother, the soft, simple “More Than a Woman” is one of his most tender ballads, while the touching “In Heaven”, whose captivating tempo belies the sadness of its lyrics, is sure to deeply resonate with anyone who has ever lost a loved one.

Two powerful ballads preface the closing tracks, “Insanity” and “Don’t be a Fool”. The latter has one of the most beautiful choruses in the repertoire of a musician whose greatest strength is writing flawless ballad choruses, and lyrics that touch on loss and regret.

Don’t be a fool

Don’t give your nights to someone else

While giving days to those who really love you

Don’t be a fool like me

And give your life to someone else

While faking love to those who really love you

The closing line-up is a bit surprising. Not so much for the swinging, funky “Fan The Flames”, which has some great moments for tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, but for the upbeat, mischievous and downright adventurous (by Gregory Porter standards) “French African Queen”. It’s a fun, catchy tune in the vein of “In Fashion”, though it seems like a bit of an odd choice to close a mellow, slow-paced album like this with shouts of “Oui, oui”.

In his newest record, Gregory Porter has produced pretty much a direct continuation to Liquid Spirit, though without the carefully contrasted narrative that made the latter one of the great works of modern vocal jazz. Still, as I mentioned before, Porter is incapable of producing a bad song. His powerful personality, distinctive timbre (on the low end of the spectrum I think few vocalists can keep up) and a high standard when it comes to songwriting make for a splendid body of work, in spite of the fact that he is clearly sticking to a formula that should, in theory, make his music sound monotonous. Perhaps his greatest talent is his ability to keep doing the same thing while thoroughly avoiding to fall into the trap of repetition.

With Take me to the Alley, Gregory Porter’s chosen creative path is clearly marked. Even if he doesn’t stray from it for the rest of his career, I for one am happy to follow.