All roads to good music seem to run through Philadelphia these days. This summer has seen The Roots give us The Tipping Point - virtuosic performances and the strongest album of the year (all genres), Jill Scott just dropped Beautifully Human - I'm taking a little time to fully digest that one but from my first few listens it feels like a blanket of Maze featuring Frankie Beverly and Al Green before he became a Reverend. Of late too, Bilal's album from a couple of years ago has been making a strong comeback into the playlist.
Last year's best albums, Les Nubians' One Step Forward and Roy Hargrove's The RH Factor were both soaked in Phillydom. Strictly speaking Amel Larrieux is a New Yorker but I'll argue that she does have a strong Philly connection and, in any case, her sensibility is at one with all the aforementioned artists with whom she has collaborated and toured with.
Last Thursday, Amel gave what Art Blakey used to call a "cooking session" at the Regattabar - the kind that gets your juices flowing or, to mix my metaphors, a shot across the bow, as it were. I had to travel the next day so couldn't get a repeat performance, but "The Girlfriend" reports that Friday's show was indeed all that I knew it would be and even more as word of mouth had done its duty.
It isn't often that you want to fork out your own money for two concerts in a row from the same artist. That is the measure of an inspired act, or put another way, of a cult artist, of a musician's musician like Prince. Amel Larrieux is someone who makes you want to join the street team and start handing out leaflets and posters to anyone you meet. That, I think, is a tribute to the kind of scary talent she displayed and the devastating empathy of her rhythm section.
Her first public outing in the mid-nineties was with Mantronix's Bryce Wilson on Groove Theory, a cool collaboration borne of a superb demo and the ensuing serendipity. There was a summer where "Tell Me" was played in all the clubs and house parties I attended (similarly to the way Zhane's Hey Mr DJ took off). I suspect that she got a little frustrated with the sandbox that record companies were trying to place her in and truth be told, Bryce tended towards the metronomic. Amel's vision is much wider and she's one who wants full control of the direction of her art; she has to write her own songs, do her own arrangments and put her personal stamp on the whole package.
Infinite Possibilities (2000) was her solo debut, a soulful and low-key album (think Sade meets Bjork) that probably got lost in the mix for more earthy and commercial R&B of the time. Again that's the problem: she isn't just R&B, she's more like soul by way of jazz, folk, rock and classical music. Her musical influences are diverse and her material resists easy categorization. "Get Up" was the big club hit but it was the more personal songs I kept returning to like Sweet Misery and especially the title track. I think Infinite Possiblilities sold a fair amount but nothing near what Mary J Blige, India Arie or Macy Gray sold, and she is far more talented than any of those singers. For that reason, Sony seemed to want to cut their losses. Another example of how record companies don't actually serve the artists they claim to represent and serve.
Last year she changed her record label and the label, Bliss Life, is doing a smart thing in promoting the new album, Bravebird. They recognize that she's an outsized talent who needs nurturing and they are making sure that she gets the grooming by going out on tour. That's why she's playing in the small jazz club scene. The folks who normally come out in support of artists like Cassandra Wilson will immediately see the point and start spreading the word from the grassroots. Some might see it as a shame that she isn't filling arenas, but I see it differently: the hits will undoubtedly come, spending the time to garner the "live" reputation will mean serious dollars long after Britney Spears is forgotten. Again think of Maze who never had a number one in the pop charts but will fill out the biggest theatres in DC for weeks on end.
On to the show... It was a small and intimate audience and felt like a jam session with friends and family. It was also one of the most exciting concerts I've attended all year (second only to Prince, but then who can top Prince?). The band came out and locked into a groove immediately, playing a few of her first hits. Simple arrangements: funky hip-hop drum, some Bill Evans stylings on the grand piano and a Stanley Clarke bass. After 15 or so minutes she sidled up quietly, hit the first note and never looked back. Her new songs are hypnotic and ethereal (made me regret not having snapped it up when it came out) and she re-imagined the songs from her first two albums. The live renderings give a full picture of Amel Larrieux's varied world.
Her voice is not an earthy voice, it's slight and higher-pitched, perhaps reaching towards the Minnie Riperton range. It's finely controlled and she has great technique; she wouldn't be out of place in a Jazz Academy. But the music is soul, she's just a soul singer. Her vocal approach reminds me of Abbey Lincoln, Rachelle Ferrelle when she lets her hair down, Betty Carter, and even Sarah Vaughn - yes I mean it. She swoops, scats and takes you on excursions. The song, as you remember it from the album, is only a prelude to an extended jam that deconstructs the beat ala Sun Ra. She jokingly recalled that a critic had called her "The Queen of Long Endings" but she revelled in it. And I appreciated it, I went along with her. That's what a live show should be like: we don't want the studio vinyl or just the radio-friendly jam.
And the band. What a band. Three guys who listen closely to her and each other: the essence of a jazz, hip-hop, funk, soulful, classical, basically-nasty rhythm section. Think The Roots meet the Ahmad Jamal Trio by way of Earth Wind and Fire and Debussy. They are just in a zone right now; no fat, no preservatives and just great empathy bringing out the best in her.
On the basis of last night, even Jill Scott, Angie Stone and Erykah Badu aren't quite cutting it. And as for the Alicia Keys or India Aries out there, well they're not even on the same planet as Amel Larrieux. Buy her album tomorrow or, better yet, run to see her live, she's that good.
File under: music, soul, jazz, concert, live, review, cool, fun, enthusiasm, Philadelphia, New York, Amel Larrieux, Philly, The Roots, virtuosity, toli