Akua Dixon is the dean of jazz cello. Like Ron Carter, she began her career as a classical musician but found that that the doors of that world were closed to African-Americans. And after four decades, she’s still finding new, soulful ways of expression. On her new album, Akua’s Dance – streaming at Spotify – she only plays cello on three tracks, shifting to baritone violin for the rest of the album for a series of vivid and often poignant low-midrange tableaux. She’s playing the album release show tonight, March 11 with sets at s 9 and 10:30 PM at Sista’s Place, 456 Nostrand Ave in Bed-Stuy. Cover is $20 if you call the restaurant at (718) 398-1766 and make a reservation; take the A/C to Nostrand.
The album opens with I Dream a Dream, guitarist Freddie Bryant’s eerie pedal chords and spiky solo punctuating Dixon’s austere lines over an altered. balletesque bolero anchored by bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Victor Lewis. It’s the first of two tracks from Dixon’s opera about New Orleans voodoo legend Marie Laveau. The other, the title cut, is a slinky clave number in 7/4, Dixon’s purposeful, moody, expressive lines giving way to a majestically Spanish-flavored Bryant solo.
The twin bassline that opens the catchy, propulsive Dizzy’s Smile is a lot of fun; then Dixon takes a fond, vintage swing-infused solo. Her steady phrasing throughout Aziza Miller’s slow ballad If My Heart Could Speak to You is steeped in blues and understated plaintiveness, set against Bryant’s resonant sparkle. Dixon carries the pensive melody of Orion’s Gait, a jazz waltz, then hands off to guitarist Russell Malone, who turns up the lights.
Dixon sings Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away, the album’s lone vocal number, with melismatic nuance and bittersweet determination. Switching to cello, Dixon opens Afrika! Afrika! with a deep, bluesy river of a solo, Malone and bassist Carter (with whom Dixon finally reunited for their first recording date in four decades) joining in with somber elegance until Dixon introduces the dancing, gospel-infused main theme
Dixon’s take of the Sade boudoir soul classic The Sweetest Taboo has a welcome starkness and directness, Lewis adding a subtle Brazilian-tinged undercurrent, with a deliciously shivery outro from the bandleader. The version of the old spiritual I’m Gonna Tell God All of My Troubles offers broodingly intense contrast, through several subtle metric shifts. Dixon winds up the album with Don’t Stop, a hypnotically kinetic launching pad for a sailing solo from Bryant in contrast to Lewis’ uneasy rumble. As string music goes in 2016, in any style of music, it doesn’t get any more impactful than this.
For the past couple of months, jazz singer Brianna Thomas has had a series of engagements at Ginny’s Supper Club uptown. Her next gig there is this Saturday night, June 18 with sets at 7:30 and 9 PM; cover is $20. The secret to this place is to grab a space at the bar; otherwise, there’s a minimum if you want to sit, and it’s not cheap. During the week, the place draws a loud afterwork crowd: if it’s the same here on the weekend, Thomas is one of the few acts who could actually work an audience to the point where they’d listen, or at least holler back at her.
None other than Will Friedwald – the guy who wrote the book on jazz singing – anointed her as the best of the current crop of up-and-coming voices in jazz. Her formidable arsenal – a strong, expressive delivery, expert command of phrasing and a love for swing and the classics – is unquestionable. This blog caught her onstage most recently a couple years back at Tompkins Square Park, where she opened the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, leading a quintet featuring similarly soulful guitarist Russell Malone.
Thomas and the rhythm section gave a joyous, cha-cha-influenced groove to All of Me to open the concert, wasting no time to launch into a jaunty stairstepping scat solo, the piano following her leaps and bounds, sax rising from low-key contrast to a bustling exuberance. That set a tone for the rest of the show, purist and packed with gospel fervor and blues grit, as in the swinging next number’s sax/bass/vocal intro, foreshadowing a coolly slipsliding bass solo midway through. “Say ‘Joy!’ Thomas entreated the crowd, and got the response she wanted. It capsulizes her appeal.
The band hit an Afro-Cuban shuffle from there, bringing a nocturne out into the daylight, Thomas leaping in on the offbeat and leaping even further from soulful melismatics to towering heights through an all-too-brief vocal solo. From there she explored airy, vampy balladry, to a hard-hitting detour into the blues, then funky soul and finally back to classic swing as the band rose and fell behind her, with alternately ebullient and pensive solos all around. The highlight of the set – and the afternoon, as it turned out – was a haunted, dynamically charged minor-key duet with Malone, an original song akin to a 21st century update on Nature Boy.
Despite her gifts as a singer, Thomas is hardly a diva, just a down-to-earth midwestern musician establishing an individual voice, finding new places to go where so many icons have gone before. From a concertgoer’s perspective, this show didn’t involve daydrinking – a hallowed Charlie Parker Festival tradition – but it did involve an awful lot of moving around, partly to stay out of the blistering sun, partly to dodge gaggles of chatty people in order to get something approximating a decent field recording. Exercise in futility: you’d do better to catch Thomas Saturday night or at a similar venue with a good sound system to fully appreciate everything she brings to the table.