There used to be a great record store on the corner of Bleecker and Tenth Street in Greenwich Village. One of the clerks there, Nikki, made these great mix tapes which she’d play after the boss stepped out for the day. One of my favorites started with Blondie’s “Atomic”, followed by Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”, with Sade’s “Smooth Operator” succeeding the proto-punk Pop.
I hadn’t heard of Sade’ before listening to that mix tape, but was completely taken in by the soulful, rich vocals and the light jazz ensemble backing her. She wasn’t the greatest singer I’d ever heard, but she knew how to evoke tremendous emotion with her voice. And just like that, this alternative rock and roll boy was insatiably addicted to the sensual power of this fusion vocalist.
Razia strikes me much the same way. Much like Sade, Razia possesses a silky smooth, extraordinarily exotic voice, which she employs like a woman uses bedroom eyes to lead a lover in an evening of dangerous pleasures. Throughout Magical, Razia weaves a memoir chronicling her young life with her grandmother and siblings in Madagascar; a move to Gabon, journeys through Europe and a discovery of fulfillment in New York City.
At its best, this album could be the soundtrack for a French new wave film. As I listened to the tracks, I closed my eyes and imagined Catherine Deneuve dancing barefoot by herself, embraced by one arm while the other flows freely with the music. But there is no change in tempo throughout the album, no opportunity for the singer to slow things down and really explore some marvelously lush terrain. And throughout the album it seems like Razia and her sterling ensemble accompaniment is restrained from even modest modulation. It’s obvious that both singer and band wanted desperately to break through the limitations of the soul/dance format.
My first thought was that Razia didn’t have the chops to color outside the lines. But it’s apparent from the perfect, four-part back-up harmonies Razia laid down to support the songs that she has an achingly beautiful range that she can control at will. So the blame for this lapse lies squarely with producers the Graff Brothers. Perhaps the time they took for all the excessive vocal doubling and unnecessary drum machine tracks could have been better spent crafting a fuller emotional resonance to the album, and taking advantage of the tremendous gifts of this singer and band.
Even though the production has a few glaring errors, this is still a great project worthy of attention from the most ardent soul/jazz fusion fans. Razia presents it with great respect to her adolescent influences of Papa Wemba and Fela Kuti, who, like John Coltrane and Miles Davis before them, took the marvelous African ceremonial rhythms of their heritage and applied them to both soul and jazz, becoming progenitors in their own right. As her compositional and production capabilities grow, she will find avenues for creating another hybrid of world music and American jazz of her own.
I doubt that Nikki still works at the record store in the Village. But it would be worth checking out where she is making her fabulous mix tapes now, so I can send her a copy of Razia for inclusion, turning others on to the mystical delights of Razia’s peerless vocalizations.
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