Every week we get the latest new music. This week music journalist Steve Hochman stops by with his review.
And there’s a French Connection through the Reviewsday picks this week, with the group Ibeyi and the individual musicians Cécile McLorin Salvant and Benjamin Clementine.
Ibeyi is a French-Cuban duo made up by twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz. The first voices heard on “Ash,” the new album by Ibeyi, belong to the women of the Bulgarian chorus, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares via a sample. A few song later, the voice of Michelle Obama is heard, with clips of her public speeches woven in the song “No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms,” the key line of hers being, “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.”.
Their bracing 2015 debut “Ibeyi” had them diving into their own story and roots. Most prominently, it honors their father, Cuban percussionist Anga Diaz, who died when they were 11 in 2006, and their mother, French-Venezuelan singer Maya Dagnino.
This new album, Ash, takes a larger perspective of current culture, politics and emotions, and the balance between African/Afro-Caribbean percussion and electronic beats tilting a bit more to the latter. Adding to the wider perspective are guest contributions by Meshell Ndegeocello (whose bass anchors the song “Transmission”), Chilly Gonzalez (piano on “When Will I Learn”) and Kamasi Washington, the acclaimed Los Angeles saxophonist and bandleader, who adds his bold tones to “Deathless.”
The song is based on a scary run-in Lisa -Kaindé had with Paris police in her teens, but became a broader look at such things on a global scale, again without ever losing that personal perspective — a real trick that they manage with great art and effectiveness.
“Untie my tongue,” Lisa-Kaindé sings in the spare, somber “Waves.” “I say untie my tongue.” Let’s make that tongues, not just because there are two of them, but because they seem driven to find as many routes of expression as they can, musically and linguistically. For the latter, where they’ve written and sung in English, French and Yoruban before, here with “Me Voy” (“I Leave”), they have their first song fully in Spanish, written with and featuring Barcelona-based rapper Mala Rodriguez. Over a crisp pan-cultural club mix of deep beats and electronics, the sisters sing of leaving oneself, but entering into love. It’s the ultimate expression of hope and belonging in a world so full of despair and isolation.
CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT
DREAMS AND DAGGERS
At age 18, Cécile McLorin Salvant moved to her mom’s native France to study at law, and some music, at the Darius Milhaud Institute along the Mediterranean.
On her 2015 album, “For One to Love,” which won the Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album, Cécile McLorin Salvant turned the Disney Cinderella’s “Stepsisters Lament” and the Burt Bacharach-Hal David anti-feminist “Wives and Lovers” into celebrations of individualism, of not conforming to conventional standards of beauty and decorum. It was done without irony, without hammering it, but by slyly letting the songs’ own outre energy work on her behalf. It was a feat of jazz Zen mastery. And of course, done with a singular voice and sweetly eccentric style that have made her one of the the new stars of jazz.
The message and method both continue through “Dreams and Daggers,” a two-CD set recorded largely in the course of several nights in concert at the famed Village Vanguard. She covers a wide range of, and outside of, the classic American songbook, but several stand out for her personalized repurposing, notably Noel Coward’s “Mad About the Boy,” Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry” and the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill classic “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” among the core tunes — yes, all written by men. But there’s also the shamelessly aggressive romanticism of Irving Berlin’s “The Best Thing For You Would Be Me” and the giddy Jay Gorney-Sidney Clarke song “You’re My Thrill.”
“Best Thing” is one of several giving a lot of room to pianist and musical director Aaron Diehl to show off his considerable talents and sees Salvant using the full range of her talents and artistry, a tour de force that somehow touches at once on Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Blossom Dearie, but never imitating anyone. The message, manner and voice are her, what’s in her, who she is — conveyed by how she goes inside a song, wears it, makes it part of her wardrobe, right there with those colorful thick-rimmed glasses and adornments of her close-cropped hair, that brilliant smile, that engagingly earthy manner and quick wit. Ditto for how she works with her combo — Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers, nimble and imaginative as the leader.
Making a mostly live album was a great move. Live is where she sparkles the brightest. And her sparkle is naturally dazzling, physically manifest in her personal sense of style — And then there’s her singing, as she can move almost effortlessly from coquettish highs to almost comically plied lows, from frilly and trilly to poignant and somber and back again, sometimes all in the course of one line. Some of the material was enhanced by, or recorded completely in, studio sessions featuring the Catalyst String Quartet, offering some wonderful interludes and side-trips.
A two-songs sequence near the end of the album comes from outside the standards realm. “Fascination,” has music by Salvant and Sikivie, with the words coming from a lusty Langston Hughes poem. The second, “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” goes back to 1924, associated with early jazz star Ida Cox, known for her brass and sass and a hero to Salvant. Here it’s an anthem, a creed, a way-of-life, a blues-Zen manifesto delivered with a knowing wink, tying up the album with élan.
ALBUM: I TOLD A FISH
“One awkward fish,” sings Benjamin Clementine in a song of that title. “Who remembers that one awkward fish?”
Well, he is one awkward fish himself, as idiosyncratic an artist as you’ll find anywhere near the mainstream. But he is being remembered, or at least noticed. His debut album, 2015’s “At Least For Now,” took the Mercury Prize, the UK’s most prestigious music award. And his curious music, once heard, and in particularly once seen in concert, will stick with you for its eccentric drama, sadness and beauty.
And with this follow-up to the debut, “I Told a Fly,” he has made an album for all awkward fish. The album grew out of what was originally intended to be a play, a portrayal of life as an outsider, an “other,” filled with his own experiences (a rough childhood as an African-descended boy in London and then a homeless runaway in Paris). But where the debut established that ground as a declaration of self, this one opens the perspective on the world of misfits, of those bullied and beaten, of the displaced and the refugees. He’s been compared to Nina Simone for his singular artistry. With this, dramatist Bertolt Brecht comes to mind for the jagged, sharp-pointed poetry of his work.
“Fly” is marked by weird breaks of ghostly voices, odd bits of harpsichord flourishes and percussion bashes, little asides, sudden shifts of tone and/or cadence and/or texture, and Clementine’s truly unique singing. “Phantom of Aleppoville,” the first single, is a string of abrupt, sometimes unsettling and disorienting jump-cuts, his way of portraying the state of being bullied, of being pushed and held apart, of life not fitting.
While it evokes the horrors of the Syrian city Aleppo, devastated by war, its survivors largely having fled, many to horrors and death elsewhere, in that he finds a state of being he has seen and lived, not trivializing the Syrian experiences or even analogizing it, but using it as illustration. In notes accompanying the album, he cites the work of psychoanalyst Donald Wincott, famed for work with child refugees of World War II. It struck a familiar nerve with him. “I certainly wanted to address Aleppo in some sense,” he wrote. “I had to go to the essence, to the phantom, which is something we still don’t understand.”
Literary and cultural references abound — Fredrich Schiller’s stirring “Ode to Joy” (adapted by Beethoven for his 9th, of course) and Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Tree” both figure in “Ode to Joyce.” “Awkward Fish,” with images of struggling and drowning, not just being a misfit, was inspired by the horrific portrayal of lynchings in the song “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billy Holiday. “Paris Why,” spurred by the violent attacks in Paris in recent years, uses nursery rhyme inspirations to address the rise of reactionary nationalism.
In the middle of it all, though, is “Jupiter,” a lovely song, and remarkable in this context for its normality, its straightforward structure and melody. This was written about time he spent in the U.S., performing and simply traveling, in recent years, his sense of non-belonging amplified. “There is an alien passing by,” he sings, wistfully. Add David Bowie to the reference points. The man who didn’t quite fall to Earth.