I want to rectify an error-by-omission from my post of two weeks ago in which I listed jazz artists who include some kind of socio-political messaging in their music. I had mentioned the names of several vocalists—Fay Victor, Judi Silvano (a name that was “corrected” by spell check), Melissa Hamilton, and Andrea Wolper—who, though seasoned artists, have not enjoyed the kind of commercial success that their contemporaries, such as Vanessa Rubin, Roseanna Vitro, Kate McGarry, or Dianne Reeves, have attained. Whatever the circumstances are for this state of affairs is not at issue, but the omission of vocalist Kaylé Brecher I think must be rectified.
Ms. Brecher is a Philadelphia-based singer, composer, arranger, lyricist, and educator who self-produces her music, which can be heard by going to her website. Her latest CD, Spirals and Lines, includes liner notes by jazz historian and journalist Scott Yanow, who describes the title track as having “lyrics about the human condition and the often-crazy current time period that are pure poetry.” I found the opening lines, which follow a dirge-like and canonic fanfare for brass and voice, resonating with memories of my father, who was a trumpeter at night and a traveling salesman during the day:
A man with his hands on the wheel
was driving the art of the deal
he sold all his secrets
but nothing of truth was revealed …
But then her lyrics hint at more ubiquitous, and possibly sinister, undertakings with the closing:
Oh, but again I must say that …
The wheel in the hand of man
its complex and curious plan
spins slowly and wholly
spirals and lines in the sand.
Another of Brecher’s originals, “Will of the Wind,” is less poetically cryptic in its description of political debate and mainstream punditry and is delivered over a sassy, swinging arrangement. Her scat improvisations are evocative of Sheila Jordan and, to a degree, Janet Lawson. She manipulates syllables for rhythmic impetus, although she doesn’t include the exaggerated enunciation that was the trademark of Lawson or, more recently, Fay Victor. Still, her textual messaging, at least on Spirals and Lines, is every bit as evident as Victor’s socio-political writing.
Her third original on the CD, “So It Goes” (a phrase I remember as part of the signature sign-off of NBC news anchor Linda Ellerbee), is more of a celebration of life, despite what might be going on around it. The groove that Brecher assembles from her ensemble accesses the essences of Latin and funk (and maybe even Korean nongak), but isn’t any of them. Part of this effect is due to her use of sousaphone instead of contrabass or bass guitar, which she does for the entire CD. It should be said that Jimmy Parker’s virtuosic sousaphone performances on Spirals and Lines demand special attention. Another part of the special groove of “So It Goes” is the use of piano and guitar as percussion instruments, contrasting the song’s angular and intervalically wide melody.
The remaining six selections are not originals, but are also highly politically messaged. “High Flying Bird” (not Elton John’s, but rather the one composed by Billy Edd Wheeler and made popular by Jefferson Airplane and Richie Havens) is, according to Yanow, a “pro-labor” treatise. The traditional, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” is given a gospel treatment with a reharmonization that adds a touch of irony to Patrick Gilmore’s lyrics. Bob Dylan’s “Paths of Victory” is performed over a “second line” feel and features Parker’s prowess on the sousaphone. Jay Gourney and Yip Harburg’s classic, “Brother Can You Spare A Dime,” is also performed as a trio (vocal, sousaphone, drums), although as a straight-ahead ballad without the Dixieland shading of “Paths of Victory.” “The House I Live In,” a song composed by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allen that was introduced by Frank Sinatra in the post WWII short film of the same name, is here given a 12/8 rock-anthem groove and performed as a duo by Kaylé and her husband, pianist David Dzubinski. Brecher’s reharmonization includes an alteration of the last note of the melody that rubs against the piano part until the very last chord—well worth repeated listening! Ellen Johnson and Charles Mingus’s “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues” (or “White Collar Blues”) features Frank Butrey’s guitar and is performed as a medium slow blues that gets to the core of the genre.
The rest of the musicians on Spirals and Lines are: Stan Slotter, trumpet and flugelhorn; Tony DeSantis, trumpet; George Rabbai, trumpet; Mike Jarosz, flugelhorn; Fred Scott, trombone; Jarred Antonacci, trombone; Barry McCommon, bass trombone; George Barnett, French horn; Grant MacAvoy, drums; Erik Johnson, drums; and Edgardo Cintron, percussion. It should be noted that Brecher gives each arrangement a unique orchestration, so not everyone plays on every track, nor does everyone play together on any one track. For instance, on “So It Goes” the ensemble consists of sousaphone, trumpet, bass trombone, guitar, piano, drums, and percussion, while on “Spirals and Lines” she uses sousaphone, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, French horn, and drums.
Of course, there are many other fine singers who were overlooked in that post: Kate Bull, Vicki Burns, Theo Bleckmann, Madeline Eastman, Kitty Margolis, Paula West, Debra Brown, to name just a very, very few; but, while I was writing the post, I had Spirals and Lines sitting on my desk in plain sight! And it’s so heavily politically themed that it really should have been mentioned. I just hope that this brief description of the CD is worthy of the music on it, which is as personal as Brecher’s voice. My colleague, bassist, composer, and producer Kelly Roberti described it as having “a most unique and wonderfully peculiar ‘perfect seat in the house’ feel,” and I couldn’t agree more.
As Frank J. Oteri pointed out, socio-political messaging in music is a hot topic of late. But that has been a part of music making for as long as there’s been music. As much as we would like to make music for music’s sake, its ability to enhance the effective transmission of opinion to large groups of individuals is without parallel. It is an essential part of human communication and one so powerful that it is still used to this day to make our wishes known to whatever greater powers and deities we believe to be listening. It only makes sense that as we master our capacity for making music, we should carefully consider the potential for socio-political messaging that our music has. We must also make sure that whatever messaging becomes attached to our music is in line with our values. As Horace Ott said: “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”.