Somi, an African soul-jazz vocalist and founder and artistic director of the non-profit organization New Africa Live, has just dropped Live at Jazz Standard, which features new arrangements of her songs–mainly from her 2009 release If the Rain Comes First–as a part of an intimate quartet. Somi, has created buzz as a polyculturalist and cosmopolitan based on her musical fusions and befittingly: as a vocalist she sings in English and three East African languages, but her music draws from classic American jazz singers, illustrious African female voices and beyond into obscurity. The new album consists of live recordings that took place at the Jazz Standard in New York City over two nights and this might be the best representation of “New African Jazz,” her self-described fusion of musical stylings, to date.
On the opening track “Ingele,” it’s clear that Somi will humbly tightrope walk between the role of playing ‘just another instrument’ in the quartet and the lead in a way that that her previous neo-soul grounded recordings would not allow. The production style of “Ingele” in its original form featured so many overlapping tracks of her voice that her expression/consciousness seemed muffled at times, but on Live at Jazz Standard Somi assume complete autonomy over her vocal soundscaping, which is pivotally important for an artist who doesn’t mince her intentionality. Of equal worth on the opener are the patient guitar and piano solos. On “Wallflower Blues” the acoustics of the Jazz Standard as well as Somi’s musical accompaniment bring this old tune to a new depth. Somi’s words here could pull any hermit out of their solitudinous hiding as the speaker in the poem strives to become “ready to unveil her plaster gown and lay down her concrete heart.”
“Quietly” has a minimalistic instrumental intro that progresses throughout the song to align with the imagery of Somi’s poem. In the poem the speaker meditates on landscapes to reflect on the inherent balance of the “pink clounds that kiss the evening sun,” which indices nature prismed through our relationship with others. The piece has a unified meaning created by the collaboration of likeminded musicianship, which is true of the entire live recording. On “Enganjnaya” Somi seems winded by the two hour show and her deep breaths only organically bring out different personalities in her voice that may be less inhibited. A couple of the solos suffer from volume inconsistencies, but this is the what is to be expected in mastering a live performance. A few of the poems seem to be pastiches of unfinished ideas/images like on the title track of If the Rain Comes First, but tuning into any of the other elements including the evolving colors conveyed through Somi’s sounds changes everything. There are two covers on the album. First is the youthful and soul-expanding interpretation of Abbey Lincoln’s “Should’ve Been.” The second, the album closer, is an acoustic-soul rendition of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” that brings the listener into Somi’s home via conveying raw sentiment and joie de vivre, which similarly made Lauren Hill’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 a transporting experience. Live at Jazz Standard shows listeners everywhere Somi speaking for herself and taking more control over her art while simultaneously playing as a part of a unified sound where she is not always leading. The result is a picturesque and incanting set of of her old songs that have evolved overtime and this will be dug by fans of jazz, soul and world music alike.
Words by Liam Bird