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.
The first September post of On Queue is coming to you from the Pacific Northwest. As a Mid-Westerner, it’s hard not to get hypnotized by the mountains, the pines, and the long stretches of water surrounding Seattle. With the fires blazing around the area, there is a slight haziness hanging in the air adding another level of numinous scenery to the picture. It’s drawn my ear to the expansive sounds of some of the recent ambient releases climbing the charts.
Naturally, if we are talking about ambient music I’m sure everyone’s minds go straight to algorithms and software development, right? Ehhh probably not. For Icelandic composer and producer, Ólafur Arnalds, it is the cornerstone of his fourth studio release, re:member.
The album is the product of combining the distinct post-minimalist voice of Arnalds with the Stratus software develop over the course of two years in collaboration with audio programmer, Halldór Eldjárn. The program is used to to trigger a series of robots that connect the voices of three pianos. As Arnalds plays one piano, it triggers two other pianos to respond adding flourishes, sparkling melodies, and harmonies to accompany Arnalds. He is able to control values such as rhythm and tempo to create rich loops played seemingly by ghosts. All aspects of the album revolve around Stratus–even the album art is created through a generative tool connected to the pianos. As Arnalds puts it, “I spent two years making my pianos go bleep bloop.”
The album opens with the title track that acts almost as the window display of a store front for the rest of the album. Presented to the listener are the elements of the album, distinctly separated throughout the track, but strung together through the flowing sound Arnalds is known for. Solo piano, lush string arrangements, the uncertainty of the Stratus pianos, and driving rhythms inspired by hip hop and break beats are layered together pulling the listener in so each of these elements can be further explored.
The third track on the album, “saman,” strips away the electronics, machines, and accompanying strings to feature the solo piano. A series of repeated chord changes and melodic patterns are heard, but the sense of rhythm is not lost. By the end, the conversation between left and right hand has become syncopated and chords begin to grow. It feels like a reduction of the musical algorithm used for many of the other parts of the album. Tucked within blankets of piano textures heard through the rest of the album, “saman” stands in strikingly beautiful isolation.
Much of the magic of this album, for me, is in the mix. The meticulous control and design of the soundscape in this album creates its unique voice and seamless blend between man and machine. The personality of each piano is highlighted in the mix of the album–each piano is given a life and acts as a character. It is a refreshing feeling in a time where music can be so processed and a hyper-perfected sound is sought after. The mechanical systems of the pianos–the levers and hammers brought to life by robots–are given a voice.
The dominant landscape on the album remains in the vast, cold, and quiet sound that has been so present in this Icelandic composer’s work throughout his career. This latest album, however, introduces new voices and new sounds that contribute warmth and rhythm to this landscape. While perhaps sounding simply, this simplicity allows each note to carry an intense amount of weight. It is an optimistic blue sound that perfectly blends sadness and soothing. Arnalds speaks to the title of this album as the opposite of “dismemberment.” It is a journey with the mission of becoming one’s self again. For Arnalds, this means relying on the sounds of his childhood and the music that most influences him giving re:member its uplifting and organic voice.
Keith Kenniff is a prolific composer and multi-instrumentalist heard under a variety of monikers and styles. His most recent release, Veriditas, is heard under Helios, his signature behind melodious ambient and electronic music production. Released on Ghostly International, it is the first album Helios has released on this label, but his 11th project in total under the Helios name. In addition to the ambient and unrushed Helios releases, Kenniff’s music can also be heard as the post-minimalist classical piano music of Goldmund and as the electronic, industrial, and punk rock–inspired band, Mint Julep, that Kenniff formed with his wife, Hollie. Kenniff’s music has been featured in many ads and films and he maintains a library of music tailored for film and media placement. It is safe to say he is a busy man.
For such a high level of musical activity and output in Kenniff’s life, Veriditas suspends time and calms the mind. The music breaths freely offering subtle sonic suggestions to the listener, but leaving more than enough space for individual interpretation and meditation. Kenniff music, this album especially, is rooted in nature. As he explains in the linear notes, “While I’m not a very spiritual person as it relates to a religious belief, I do feel an overwhelming connection between the aesthetics I find pleasing in my experience of nature and my experience of writing music."
Percussion and guitars are put in the backseat on this album creating the static and calm environment that is heard on every track. There is an exceptional amount of attention to texture and harmony as these are the structures explored throughout the album. There is no indication that traditional song forms or structures are being implemented, but the textures heard throughout the album create a cohesive narrative and are just plain stunning–that is enough to keep me coming back every time.
The single and opening track from the album, “Seeming,” shows Helios’ talent for creating seamless evolution within a texture in order to evoke progress and forward motion. A deep and rich organ sound introduces a slow chord progression. Slowly a higher and slightly harsher sound enters and takes over as the chord progression changes and climaxes halfway through the track before returning to the organ as “Seeming” fades out.
There are no formulas to the endings of the tracks on this album. Seeing that traditional song forms are not used, many of the tracks end with fades or at what might seem like surprising times, but it is the evolution of the textures that dictate when each track must end. The result is an album with fleeting moments and other moments that continue on and feel as though they regenerate indefinitely. “Latest Lost” sparkles in a mysterious cloud for only a moment while “Upward Beside The Gale” features some of the most clear melodies over complex and diverse textures for over four minutes.
When you treat yourself to giving this album a listen, be sure to listen with nice speakers or headphones and allow yourself to make this album your only focus in that moment. Projecting your own interpretation to the music and allowing it to transport you is, in my opinion, the most important part of hearing this album in its entirety. Free from distraction and free from the worries of everyday life, Helios’ music quietly calms the mind and opens a connective path between yourself and nature that was previously unexplored.
This is not an ambient release, but I am confident in saying that I am not veering from the theme of this blog post by including it.
Texture based, expansive, rich, simplistic figures within lush sonorities–these are characteristics that the other two releases in this On Queue post contain and are common characteristics of most ambient releases. You Are Here is a genre-bending release containing these characteristics, but adds an infectious groove. It is equal parts folk, soul, hip hop, gospel, and experimental sound design that blend together to create this stunning album.
Producer, Matthew Thompson (who goes by VISTA) and vocalist, April George hail from the DMV and have found a way to gradually penetrate into an industry in which that beginning step carries with it such uncertainty and mystery. While working day jobs, working without a budget, without a label, and with one manager, the two DC musicians have managed to grow a supportive following. For those who have known the duo, this release confirms how underappreciated these musicians have been since the first of their three releases. For those being introduced to the duo for the first time (like myself), it is one heck of a hello.
The album opens with a short statement, “Little Things.” It places the listener in the meditative state that will take over the 18-minute duration of the album. Atonal pizzicato on a violin in a wide stereo field is the first sound heard–it is like the primordial goo of the album and everything grows from this. The next character introduced to the story is the electric piano–this will serve as one of the main voices in each track outlining the sophisticated harmonic changes. Finally, opulent strings provide accompaniment to April’s captivating voice.
“How To Get By” highlights the inventive production techniques this duo utilizes turning a simple voice note recording into a fully arranged and delicate lullaby. Simple drums and soulful bass solos add to the swirling texture of what could be my favorite number on the album.
“Own2” is upbeat with a head nodding bounce laid on top of the keys and synths that drip with reverb and dimension throughout the project. April’s melodies are simple in their composition, but travel so effortlessly up and down her vocal range creating an intriguing vocal layer.
The album closes just as it opened, with a soft symphony of violin pizzicato. Just as in re:member or Veriditas, there is a sense that a single moment in time is greatly expanded to reveal the fine details and sonic treasures hidden in that moment. Although it is a brief album, these moments of violin pizzicato are the beginning and ending signals alerting the listener to sink into meditation.