René Marie’s Sound of Red – a splendid, sincere and sobering record for troublesome times

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We are just a few hours away from the 59th Annual Grammy Awards and this year The Music and Myth is taking a particular interest in the ceremony. For the first time in years, I’ve found myself actually rooting for someone.

Longtime readers of my website will (correctly) point out that I don’t take NARAS very seriously. In fact, I go out of my way to ridicule their shortsightedness and blatant disregard for the breadth and variety of the music industry. However, even I can’t deny the level of exposure a win can bring and there is one particular record I think is highly deserving of the largest possible audience.

While, historically, the nominees in the Best Vocal and Instrumental Jazz categories consist of the same twenty names popping up in rotation alongside the ever-present Chick Corea, every so often, a truly outstanding work will find its way on the ballot. That was the case with Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit in 2014, whose undeniable value and crossover appeal were recognized by NARAS and rewarded with a Grammy. This year’s standout is René Marie’s Sound of Red.

The charming, energetic vocalist was nominated once before for I Wanna Be Evil, an Eartha Kitt tribute record, ultimately losing out to Beautiful Life by Diane Reeves. This time, Marie makes her debut as a composer and what a spectacular way to introduce the world to her songwriting ability.

I’ve discussed all the nominees and their respective works in The 2016 Music and Myth Awards. While they’re all unsurprisingly praiseworthy, Sound of Red just has that unmistakable aura of a musical milestone. So, in this article, I’d like to take a closer look at this album I’ve been listening to incessantly for the past few weeks.

Sometimes, when I play an album, I can tell from the first notes that I’m listening to something special. That was the case with Patricia Barber’s Smash, Sofia Rei’s De Tierra y Oro or Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables. Now, Sound of Red joins this elite group of love-at-first-sound records, an achievement it owes to its powerful and memorable opening track.

In the song’s very first second, the singer’s voice establishes the setting as “a lonely night”, providing the cue for the band’s forceful introduction. Already, the listener’s attention is undivided and it remains that way throughout the album’s eleven tracks.

The first thing that stands out, aside from Marie’s beautiful voice and captivating diction, is just how incredibly capable her band is. Pianist John Chin, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Quentin Baxter provide a complex backdrop for Marie’s poetry, raising the bar when it comes to timing and force and absolutely exceeding at enhancing the impact of the vocalist’s delivery.

This band has impressed me in every single song. I’ve tried to pick out a favorite among them, but couldn’t. Collectively, this might be the most powerful, cohesive unit in the modern jazz scene and, with her natural wit and enthusiasm, Marie makes for the perfect leader. On the title track, her voice is complemented with an enjoyable saxophone solo courtesy of guest musician Sherman Irby.

An engaging bassline introduces “If You Were Mine”, a simple, old-school tune that continues to establish the band’s ingenious interplay and serves up perhaps the record’s most vibrant piano solo. On “Go Home”, pianist Chin completely switches gears and demonstrates his feel for melody, evoking an early-Tom-Waits vibe to accentuate Marie’s raw and sentimental statements. In a clever spin on the adulterous affair motif, the vocalist casts herself in the role of a reluctant “other woman” singing:

I see where this is heading

And I’d love to go along

But you’ve got some ties that bind you

To a place I don’t belong

I know your heart is aching

And you think I’ve got the cure

But once the dawn is breaking

You might not be so sure

Later, she urges the object of her affection to “go on home to the woman you love, tell her you didn’t mean to be unkind, go home […] before I change my mind.”

Though I’m not a big fan of power ballads, this unorthodox approach and impeccable delivery makes it one of the best tracks on what is already shaping up to be a superlative record.

The highlight of said record is, in my opinion, the intense and dynamic “Lost”, a veritable tour-de-force of musical storytelling. It’s hard to pick out the best on an album where every song sounds like a new genre classic but “Lost” is exceptional in its cadence, complexity and humor. The middle section – starting with the piano solo all the way through Marie’s scat singing and, ultimately, her hilarious evocation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – is the greatest thing I’ve heard in months. The band amps up before the bass halts the pace and Rene’s battle hymn reawakens the dormant narrative. Just an all-out flawless piece.

With its mesmerizing vocals and straightforward lyrics, “Stronger Than You Think” has all the makings of a hit that transcends the genre, while the honest and whimsical “Certaldo”, featuring guest guitarist Romero Rubalbo, does a fantastic job of capturing the atmosphere of charming Italian small towns.

The Earth shook beneath me

The full moon glazed above

The cobbled stones, the narrow streets,

Of course I fell in love

Of course she did. Of course we do! As a lover of all things Italy, I can completely relate and the song brings back some wonderful memories. Indeed, una canzone molto divertente.

“The Colorado River Song” is an unassuming track born from playful improvisation on a road trip, as the artist herself recounts during this excellent NPR gig. Reflecting the joyful, unrestrained energy of a fun day out, this song wouldn’t be out of place in Louis Armstrong’s repertoire. It also provides a welcome break from some of the heavier tracks like “This Is (not) a Protest Song”.

The mood turns serious in this ode to people on the fringes of society, written as a result of “some personal situations that developed in [the composer’s] own family”. This raw, beautiful ballad with shades of country music stands as perhaps the unofficial anthem of the record. A sobering song for troublesome times, Rene’s non-protest anthem is another one of the record’s highlights.

Perhaps because of its position behind such a powerful, socially relevant track, “Many Years Ago” remains rather understated with its bygone-era blues, in spite of the fact that’s it’s an absolutely lovely song.

The record closes with the dynamically contrasted “Joy of Jazz” and “Blessings”. The high energy and unabashed optimism of the former serves to increase the disarming beauty and tenderness of the latter. I’m not ashamed to say that I was literally brought to tears by this song, which is notable given that it happens so rarely, especially for someone who listens to countless hours of new music every week. Indeed, the effect of the vocalist’s tender, honest delivery is enhanced by the fact that she is just a genuinely likable person, making her blessings sounds as if they’re coming from a friend, not a performing artist.

In “Blessings”, Rene Marie delivers one of the most beautiful closing songs I’ve heard in many years of studying music. It left me feeling good and fulfilled and left the artist with a new lifelong fan.

With lengthy tracks that have ample time to set up a premise and deliver the narrative at a satisfying pace, with a band that seems to have an almost supernatural understanding of its vocalist’s strengths and a lead singer who can convincingly express the whole spectrum of human emotion, Sound of Red is a masterpiece and one of the best albums of the last five years. Absolutely flawless!

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.

Patricia Barber’s Smash – extraordinary intelligence and articulacy

With the one year anniversary of The Music and Myth fast approaching I was planning on quickly getting one more review/recommendation in before I work on my “anniversary article”. Still, there is no way in hell I am going to rush through a review of Smash, one of the best records you are bound to encounter this year.

(Note: initially I had written “one of the best Jazz records you are bound to encounter” and then I changed my mind)

American singer, songwriter and pianist Patricia Barber is probably one of the most well-liked and most respected Jazz musicians in the world right now and it’s not hard to figure out why. Thirty seconds in, you can already see that it will be very hard to find any fault in this record especially given that it just might be her best yet.

Barber’s voice is flawless, her piano-playing is wonderful and the general instrumental arrangement of the record is brilliant; still neither of these things is the defining trait of Patricia Barber’s work. The qualities that stand out the most are her extraordinary intelligence and her articulacy, evident in the songwriting. Trust me, brilliant lyrics are not always a given, even in Jazz.

The record starts off with “Code Cool”, a very ambitious opening track for various reasons. The bass and drums provide a catchy rhythm and, a few seconds later, Patricia’s piano instantly hooks the listener. And then, of courses, come the lyrics:

Split seconds can carry quite a surprise/diffuse white matter will close my eyes/thus brutalized

I will sleep as if I were dreaming

Emergency downbeat Code Cool begins rapid sequence intubation/IV squeeze and circulation

thus stabilized

I inspire as if I were preaching

Only a minute and a half into the song (and implicitly also the record) Barber makes the very ballsy move of inserting a very slow interlude of sound effects, completely disrupting the pace and leaving the listener “up in the air”. I cannot stress enough how incredibly difficult this is to pull off successfully and when, one minute and twenty seconds later, her piano returns, gentle at first and then intense, you know you are listening to something special. I’ve talked before about the importance of a great opening song and it does not get any better than “Code Cool”. You learn all you need to know about this record from this single track: it is a record of well-calculated instrumentation, sensual vocals and above all brilliant poetry (i square dance slow make love with my lips/ read eyes like books read books like science / i remember and fix citation to case/ case to form/ discombobulation and i can cook up a storm/ i’m Michelangelo’s David tested and worn).

When I say well-calculated instrumentation what I mean is that this record has the singular quality of always being one step ahead of the listener. It is man’s nature, when listening to music, to anticipate the next sound, the direction in which the song is moving and Smash completely disrupts that tendency by changing tempo, instruments or by just flat-out stopping at certain points and pausing for a few seconds before resuming its journey.  You can never really guess where it’s going and that is near-impossible to pull off without angering or frustrating the listener. And yet, Patricia Barber does it to perfection.

“Code Cool” is followed by the haunting and, at times, melancholy “The Wind Song” and the restrained and introspective “Romanesque” before moving forward to the title track. “Smash” is outstanding especially for its switch from gentle and refrained (so this is the sound of a heart breaking) to a well-timed electric-guitar explosion with which the song ends. Reviewer Andrea Canter of The Jazz Police likened this transition to the duality of emotional pain versus physical pain and I think that’s a brilliant observation.

The more upbeat (at least as far as tempo is concerned) “Redshift” is next and, at least in a matter of lyrics, I think it’s the crown jewel of this record, with its clever use of scientific imagery:

Einstein would concur / trajectories are curved / things aren’t what they were or where we left them /

Heisenberg was right / fixing speed and site / for all who love are blind is unwise and uncertain

Starting with “Spring Song” the record moves on to a more conventional “late-night” Jazz feel with more stress on heartfelt ballads, like the stunningly beautiful “Scream” (my personal favorite) and the thoroughly poetic “The Swim”, abounding with wit though never light on content.

An important exception from this more mellow second part is the lively “Devil’s Food”, with bits of disco-funk making use of humor to touch on the subject of gay love as a direct comment on the right-wing reactions against gay marriage. Patricia sings:

look at you, look at me/ baby I can see/ we’re a lot  alike/ does that seem right to you

silk on silk/ sweet on sweet/ meat on meat

boy, you’re smooth/ and you’re just my type/ does that seem right to you

and she befittingly states

boy meets boy / girl meets girl / given any chance / to fall in love / they do

There is also an entirely instrumental track called “Bashful” which allows fellow musicians Larry Kohut (bass), and Jon Deitemyer (drums) a pleasant moment in the spotlight (guitarist John Kregor gets his on “Smash” and “Devil’s Food”) while also highlighting Patricia’s talent on the piano but it doesn’t really stand out from any other point of view. The record closes with the tender and heartbreaking “Missing” an exclamation mark on the more “sentimental” second part proving that, although the album might have lost a bit of steam as it progressed it steadily gained more depth and perhaps more heart.

Overall, Smash is the Meryl Streep of records: intelligent, elegant, with a disarmingly honest intensity but also well-timed humor. I insistently recommend it!