Shout-out to Mimi Harding for putting me on to this one. Go check out her music, art, and writing!
Courtney Bryan is a pianist and composer whose music can be heard in a wide variety of contexts. From solo pieces to large orchestral works and everything in between, she is a prolific composer and performer in both the new music and jazz styles. Bryan made her way from Oberlin Conservatory to Rutgers University before pursuing her DMA at Columbia University with experimental music legend, George Lewis, as her advisor. This Little Light of Mine stays true to the eclectic musical background of this New Orleans native.
The album is an exploration of some of the most famous African-American spirituals through the process of re-composition and improvisation. While thoroughly rooted in the jazz idiom, Bryan adds other experimental elements to the tracks. Throughout the entire album, the often untouched spaces between jazz, classical, gospel, experimental music are explored.
We are welcomed to this album by Bryan’s bouncy and virtuosic performance on “Steal Away” before being introduced to the rest of her band, made up of New Orleans musicians, on “Oh Freedom.” With danceable tempos and improvisation, these opening tracks lay the foundation of jazz that is built upon of the rest of the album.
The title track, full of gospel style, is given a little extra swing and a hint of second line influence creating a modern take on one of the most well known spirituals of all time. The final track, “Eternal Rest,” ends the album as we began, with solo piano. To my ear, Bryan’s background in classical music is heard in this performance. It feels as though the harmonic language of Robert Glasper met the impressionistic style of Debussy. It is a gorgeous way to end the tour de force which is this album.
Bryan’s experimental voice shines through in “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” and “Balm In Gilead.” The former is one of the most haunting moments of the album. “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” begins with silences before a whispering voice speaks the title of the song sending a chill down one’s spine. A disorienting chorus of whispers slowly builds with different utterances of the phrase are panned left and right covering the listener’s ears in an opaque blanket of sound. The melody of this spiritual finally enters with a female singer accompanied by the whispering, gasps, and wails. It is an unforgettable moment of the album.
Like myself, you might be familiar with “Balm In Gilead” through versions sung by the legendary voices of Mahalia Jackson or Paul Robeson. Bryan strays from the familiar beauty of these versions for a reharmonized version with a looming darkness embedded into it. Beginning with a dissonant accompaniment to a familiar melody, the track melts into piano chaos played in the extreme ranges of the piano. It is unmetered chaos that seems to find a way to tug at the same heartstrings that Mahalia Jackson and Paul Robeson so often tugged.
No matter the track or what tradition it is rooted in, I can’t help but feel a sense of something heavy and overbearing weighing me down as I listen. From the livelier and rhythmically complex pieces such as “Oh Freedom” and “No Hiding Place” to the mellow sounds of “Give Me Jesus” or “Go Down Moses,” Bryan conveys a heavy sense of melancholy through harmony, timbre, and her unique re-compositional techniques.
Brimming with themes of justice, rebellion, redemption, and hope, This Little Light of Mine is a genre-bending exploration of some of the most foundational elements of American history and American culture.
My favorite Ann Arbor hang as of late has been Wazoo records. I was up there a couple weeks ago and stumble across an album with an eye-catching watercolor cover. A single flower in the horizon of the landscape stood there with eloquent cursive writing dawning “Gladys Knight & The Pips” across the top.
Gladys Knight, for much of my life, has been one of those names that you know and recognize, but it doesn’t carry weight or much meaning. Other than stumbling across the group’s work through samples, I knew little about the history and importance of the group other than their being signed to Motown Records. At four dollars for the record it was time for me to change that.
I Feel A Song falls right in the heart of this Atlanta-born family act’s active years. The band had just recently moved from Motown Records to Buddah Records leaving after nearly a decade of steady growth and success. This turned out to be a very smart move, both creatively and commercially for the band. This third release on Buddah Records garnered two major hits, “I Feel A Song (In My Heart)” and “The Way We Were,” which charted extremely high both in the US and the UK.
It is the versatility of Knight’s voice that makes this album, and all of her performances for that matter, so captivating. As heard on this 1974 release, she can effortlessly transition between gritty soul and elegant ballads with ease. This goes for both her vocal timbre as well as her sense of rhythm which is second to none.
For soulful numbers like “Better You Go Your Way” and “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge,” her voice transitions between a melodic instrument and a member of the rhythm section. Each syllable is carefully placed and emphasized in a manner that fits into the tight pocket laid down by the band.
When the band shifts gears to tracks like “The Way We Were” and “The Need To Be” and to more of a ballad tempo, the band remains firmly locked in a tight groove, but Knight’s role suddenly changes. Her sense of rhythm is still glaringly brilliant, but it is used to stretch and bend time created by the band and the classic Motown string arrangements. Drama and beauty in these slower numbers are found in the tension and release created by the conflicting sense of time combined with sumptuous harmonies rather than precise grooves in the up-tempo moments of the album.
It might have been the album art that first pulled me into the world of Gladys Knight & The Pips, but I’m now thoroughly hooked on the sound. I will certainly be back at Wazoo soon to dig for more from this icon group.
I remember being in Hill Auditorium in 2014. I was there to see Chance The Rapper, who was then starting to make serious waves in the scene. We arrived as a quiet act went on stage to open. It was an artist who called herself “Noname Gypsy” and who had been featured on Chance’s mixtapes. It wasn’t until Chance retweeted her album in 2016 that I would be reintroduced to her genius. There seems to be a pattern forming where two year gaps separate my encounters with Noname. With each encounter the separation gets harder to bare.
Room 25 is Noname’s sophomore project and a much anticipated one at that. Her first mixtape, Telefone, strongly established her as one of the most promising young voices in hip hop. Since its release, Noname has spent an extensive amount of time touring around the world performing with a live band. The spirit of a live band is very present in this latest release and gives it a sense of life that sets it apart in the world of hip hop.
The album opens with “Self” as an introductory statement. A boom bap groove and tasty harmonies that continue through the entire album are underneath the lyrical prowess of Noname. This short introduction sets the tone of the album as she states, “y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh? Maybe this your answer for that.” It is this soft-spoken power that is heard as Noname explores a period of her life through music.
Noname’s move to L.A. positions itself as on of the focal points of the album and within the broader context exploring a sense of self throughout the project. On “Prayer Song” we hear, “L.A. be bright but still a dark city.” This track also seems to be the most politically charged of the album. Noname effortlessly relates sex to the current state of the United States.
There is an unbreakable sense of community in this release. The community of collaborators such as Smino, Saba, and Phoelix are just a few of the talents that are brought on to help add additional voices to the album. To me, this Chicago strand of neo-soul and hip hop is the strongest, in both talent and collaborative energy, in the scene right now. Everyone is looking out for each other, promoting each other, and providing the support necessary for the growing success of this community.
There is no questioning Noname’s talent. This latest project is an intimate and thought-provoking window into her life communicated through a heavenly sonic landscape.