On The Monthly: February 2017

Best of February. No Particular Order.

Sampha-Process

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Sampha has been lurking in the shadows for years as a songwriter and collaborator; Kanye, Frank, and Solange look good on a resume, but this album was Sampha’s chance to jump out into the spotlight.  On all accounts, Process is a victory.  Perfect instrumentals fill every corner of the work from modest piano/voice tracks to risky drum charts and sweeping backing vocals.  Sampha’s words are heartfelt throughout, addressing everything from the importance of his mother, to the tough aspects of relating to one’s family members and a few tunes about overcoming heartbreak.  It’s an emotional journey that also happens to include some early contenders for best single of the year.

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Priests-Nothing Feels Natural

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Stormzy-Gang Signs & Prayer

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Stormzy will tell you himself that this debut record was a long time coming.  Since gaining recognition as best grime act in the 2014 MOBO awards, he’s been a bit aloof, releasing only singles, mixtapes and music videos.  The air gets cleared quickly on Gang Signs & Prayer as each of the first three tracks hit hard and emphasize—convincingly—that there’s nothing to worry about—Stormzy is clocked in a ready to go.  He also quickly convinces us that he’s not one dimensional with a gospel number and later features offered by Kehlani and Nao.  Perhaps the album is a bit of a mixed bag and perhaps a few too many tunes gush with excess, but this record showcases a dynamic songwriter who commands each and every minute with his striking personality.

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Julie Byrne-Not Even Happiness

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There are certain formulas that have stood the test of time and the folk singer/songwriter equipped with acoustic guitar is clearly one of them.  Although the pillars of the 1960s and 70s—Dylan and Mitchell—might still be the ones truly at the tip of your tongue when the topic is brought up, Chapman, Elliot, and Sufjan have carried us on to modern day.  Aided by some blissfully subtle decisions from producer Eric Littman, Julie Byrne has carved out a nice niche for herself on Not Even Happiness.  The album’s transient landscape effortlessly maintains a natural sensibility, while also tapping into some gorgeous electro-acoustic findings.  Byrne’s lyrics are beautifully introspective and focused so the album reads as a personal journey with words of wisdom for all people.

Full Review

Lisa Mezzacappa-avantNOIR

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On AvantNOIR, Lisa Mezzacappa showcases a knack for achieving a great overall ensemble sound in an aesthetic that strikes a balance between noisy avant-garde jazz and more straight-ahead materials.  Beginning with a quirky three-minute tune, diving into some ambient realms in the middle, and ending with a floating, back-beat jolt, this album truly offers seven contrasting tunes, yet there’s a moody quality that connects each number.  Mezzacappa has been around the bay-area jazz scene for quite some time now, but this is my personal introduction to her music and it’s clear that she will become a staple of my jazz listening for years to come.

Review

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Lisa Mezzacappa-avantNOIR: Album Review

On AvantNOIR, Lisa Mezzacappa showcases a knack for achieving a great overall ensemble sound in an aesthetic that strikes a balance between noisy avant-garde jazz and more straight-ahead materials.  Beginning with a quirky three-minute tune, diving into some ambient realms in the middle, and ending with a floating, back-beat jolt, this album truly offers seven contrasting tunes, yet there’s a moody quality that connects each number.  Mezzacappa has been around the bay-area jazz scene for quite some time now, but this is my personal introduction to her music and it’s clear that she will become a staple of my jazz listening for years to come.

After giving a taste of the players on the record with the introductory “Fillmore Street,” Mezzacappa beckons in the tightly syncopated blues sensibilities of “The Ballad of Big Flora” with a brooding bass solo over textural electronics and samples.  By leaving a great deal of space between phrases in the middle of the track, Mezzacappa opens up a lot of room for drummer Jordan Glenn and electrician Tim Perkis to trade ideas.

“Army Street” offers another quick tune not unlike the first before the hefty “Medley on the Big Knockover” offers many interlocking sections over the course of ten minutes.  First, we hear a pressing rock groove with some pounding drums and disorienting, screeching-tire sound effects.  Later, we get free-metered space with sparse ideas from each member of the ensemble, before a frantic swing feel with exquisitely broken ride patterns from Glenn.

This track does feature my main reservation on the record, which is the sarcastic dive into a twangy country sound with up-beat accompaniment.  Between this and the sound effects, there’s certainly an element of humor on this track, but the country idea didn’t go over so well for me.  It’s clear that the first half of the record offers a great deal of different sounds, without losing accessibility; there’s a constant melodic focus that primes the listener for later experimental ploys.

The second half of the record distills melodic activity with a great deal of open-ended space.  “Bird in the Hand” comes first with some really well-integrated vocal samples from a movie.  It doesn’t feel like Mezzacappa is forcing anything here as the tune is sort of haunting and empty, with the samples operating as blips on the radar.  Even at the end, with more action in the film sampling, the ensemble remains floating and detached.  It’s great to here sonic work like this on a jazz record.

“Quinn’s Serenade” then offers a somewhat stark, yet gradual change of pace.  The tune kind of fades in around the same tempo of the last track, but as Bennett’s solo grows, the group fades into one of their angular melodies.  This sheds light on Mezzacappa’s over-arching planning on the record.  It’s a really cohesive listen, where each composition sensibly transitions into the next.

Although the record values ensemble sound over individuals as a whole, Aaron Bennett and John Finkbeiner provide standout performances.  When Bennett takes over the spotlight, he’s able to really unleash emotion with this really raw and unhinged saxophone persona.  Finkbeiner, on the other hand, is the character behind the operation with his off-kilter guitar tone.

AvantNOIR really strikes all the markers of a great album.  Each track brings something to the table alone, but their full impact is contingent on the rest of the work.  Also, the ensemble sound balances risk and tradition quite well in a collectively driven setting.  I wouldn’t say it’s a work that totally transcends time and genre and there’s a handful of choices I didn’t love, but it will certainly appeal to jazz fans all over the place and it proves that Lisa Mezzacappa is a compositional force to be reckoned with.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10