Two new albums feature opposite extremes of jazz vocalizing. On her Resonance Records disc Is It Me?…, London singer Polly Gibbons is effervescent on selections from the Great American Songbook, the swing era, soul, and originals she’s cooked up with pianist and arranger James Pearson. Fusion guitarist Brian Kastan‘s new recording Roll the Dice on Life prominently features Miles Griffith‘s raw, deliriously nutty avant-scatting. Both albums deliver musical brain food and spirited fun, but so differently that it makes the designation “jazz” seem almost entirely arbitrary.
Gibbons has a painterly sense of rhythm. Her voice ranges from gospel wails to soft-bop musing, and leaps from near-contralto to soprano. Backed up by superb horn arrangements by Pearson, Tamir Hendelman, and others, she puts across the 12 tracks on her second album with assurance that feels beyond her 20-something years.
The tracks themselves cover a wide terrain. If I had to pick favorites, I’d point to her haunting take on “Wild is the Wind,” for one. The original “Midnight Prayer” calls to mind Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman,” and her gently swinging version of “Sack Full of Dreams” could almost be a pop radio hit. I also get a kick out her mellow, eccentric and worldly-wise version of “Pure Imagination” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
With her wide-ranging repertoire and interpretive skill, this exciting jazz singer could stand a chance of breaking free of the genre ghetto if she puts her mind to it. I hear echoes of Ella, Lena, Aretha, even Janis. But Gibbons is a full-blown phenomenon of her own, and together with these ace swingers and soloists she’s given us something special.
Brian Kastan’s two-CD set Roll the Dice on Life is a Versailles of dazzling guitar and vocal inventiveness over complex rhythms and riffs. Disc 1 offers eight of Kastan’s wordless compositions, plus one number credited to vocalist Miles Griffith. It embeds stark freeform-flirting jazz fusion in a crunchy vortex of propulsive surprises that will appeal to many prog-rock fans.
After the nutty babble of “My Kids [sic] Dance Party,” the contemplative “Those Grey Days” sweeps up into the snarling funk of Griffith’s “Rat Attack,” which features a tense octave-bass solo from Steve Rust and a frantic guitar turn from Kastan. Griffith’s hyperspeed scat onslaught tops off his almost hyperventilating verbosity at the top of the tune. He then builds storms of vocals over the straight-ahead 4/4 of the rock-edged title track – imagine an AC/DC album with all the sounds exploded into fragments, reassembled by a devious lunatic, then played back at double-speed.
Griffith’s remarkably unsettled vocalizing is a good counterpoint to Kastan’s equally creative playing, always full of surprises even as it finds a mood, a mode, and rhythmic vocabulary for each song or section. His extended solo on “Who Knows” is just astounding.
Bassist Rust and drummer Peter O’Brien lock down a complex but steady web of rhythms, sounding especially juicy in the slower “Goodbye 2,” where Griffith scats with more traditional musicality than elsewhere. A trippy twist of heavy medal acidifies “The Dark Party,” which dissolves into panicky stops and starts before the opening motifs return to wrap it all up into a tight package. “Budapest Blues,” a traditional-ish blues with a pointillistic sparseness, is as laid-back as the CD gets, though with plenty of motion along the way, driven by O’Brien’s layered drumming. The twelve-tone-ish blurt of “Is What It Is” closes out the disc.
To digest this album, many listeners, even fusion fans, will have to open their minds wider than they’re accustomed to doing.
Disc 2, 30 minutes of live improvisation from the same quartet, may demand something else: a tolerance for non-directionality. Self-indulgent noodling or inspired psychedelic chaos? At times the music locks into a groove, even threatens to become a song, broadly defined, as in “Funky Free Out.” Helping to focus the ear, the bass and drums are mixed louder than on the studio disc. Kastan ducks out to make the first half of “Pepto Bismol Max” a bass-drums-vocals trio, then flares in with anxious chromatic ascents.
“Black men and women are shot down by the police…not respected at all,” Griffiths wails in the first of a two-part “Black Lives Matter” improvisation, then echoes Marvin Gaye in asking, “What is going on?” You may ask the same thing about Roll the Dice on Life or parts thereof. But it’s worth opening yourself up to find out.