John Finbury and Thalma de Freitas, Sorte!
Easy-flowing vocals and lyrics with literate depth fuel two recent albums from distant regions of the music spectrum. Composer John Finbury collaborates with Brazilian-born vocalist Thalma de Freitas and an excellent small band on a jazzy EP called Sorte!. Songwriter and poet Vince Bell recites his gravelly poems over improvisations spanning jazz, bluegrass, and avant-garde on his mostly spoken-word concept album Ojo.
The first thing that jumps out from Sorte! is de Freitas’s emotional melodicism. You don’t need to understand Portuguese to absorb it.
When you do dive into the surprising lyrics (there are English translations in the CD booklet) you find they take a intellectual approach to spirituality. The wordy “Ondas” (“Waves”) might sum this up best: “Surrealizing the suffocation/this crazy chatter helps me grow/Imagination liberates the secret doctrine of/profound knowledge.”
Sunny musicianship backs up de Freitas’s clean, unprepossessing vocals, driven in part by ever-admirable bassist John Patitucci. The instrumentalists’ delicate style of play suits the singer. De Freitas’s delivery has depth but a childlike quality as well, neither self-consciously jazzy nor bluesy, instead coasting on an easy pop-jazz coolness.
Under Vitor Gonçalves’s Rhodes filigrees in the last track, “Surrealismo Tropical,” Patitucci’s offbeat low-end churn is so powerful that the music almost has to un-trendily fade out. The song is quite a contrast from the gentle bossa nova of the opening, title track.
In between, a lovely melody defines “Filha,” the singer’s encouraging message to her daughter. Then the stark light-footed tension of “Ondas” gives way to the soft balladry of “Maio,” followed by “Oração,” a flowing appeal to a higher power who reads more like an Earth spirit than a Western almighty God. “Take our gratitude/affectionately/We do not want sweat nor blood./Our people want to pour/tears of happiness/seeing a new Earth bloom.” Don’t we all?
Vince Bell, Ojo
Vince Bell has a deliciously good time delivering his dark-rimmed poetry through the 11 dusky tracks of Ojo. Witness how he hatchets out the three-word payoffs to “The Snake,” whose last stanza reads:
The snake is a writhing muscle glaring from the grass.
Lightning only strikes a few
But the snake strikes whenever he pleases.
And if the snake unadvisedly takes a pleasure striking me?
The snake dies.
Like these poems in general, this is both funny and vaguely threatening.
It isn’t quite as effective when he switches to singing, as he does – with unremarkable harmonizing from Laura Cantrell – in “If You Walk Away.” This purely Americana tune does, however, feature David Mansfield and the always interesting Dave Soldier on violins.
Bell wrote most of the music on the album. The exception is the taut “Oh, Yeah,” with music by Renaud-Gabriel Pion. Pedro Cortes’ flamenco guitar helps this track stand out. Cortes also energizes the Spanish-style “Gypsy,” earthy and weird, and the jazzy and uncharacteristically soothing “Bads and the Better.”
An air of dark, dry humor dominates. “I Don’t Wanna Hear It,” a vignette about a woman rejecting her fickle lover’s promises, ends with the narrator observing archly, “It’s a good thing life is not as serious as it seems to the waitress.” Small comfort to her, after the lover has asserted, “Look at it this way, if I was the Devil you wouldn’t even know about it.”
Americana weirdness goes too far for my taste in the sung “Give Chance a Chance.” The awkward scansion makes me long for Bell’s spoken-word gravitas to return. Which it does promptly in the title track, a litany of images knit together by the symbolism of spring. Like de Freitas in her own title track, Bell here evokes luck: “Ojo de suerte, spring of luck./Ojo do no suerte en todo, spring of no luck at all.”
“A little poetry is dangerous,” Bell declares at the start of the album. We’re going to need some luck, he goes on: “There’s not a very lot of us,/But then there never was.” Maybe not. But the music keeps playing, keeps coming, a flood of music on the computer, on the phone, in the car, in a reviewer’s mailbox, in the air. These two recordings exemplify the blooming variety of tones and moods a lone human voice can evoke, especially when expert bands back them up.