Sasha Masakowski – Wishes and Take Your City EPs

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by Nick DeRiso

Sasha Masakowski, at once fearless and charming, is featured on two new EPs, one as a leader with Musical Playground (a sampling from the forthcoming next-gen jazz recording Wishes on Hypersoul Records) and another as part of the New Orleans indie rock/electronic band Bionica on Take Your City. Across these nine songs, we discover a vocalist of startling range — from the traditional to the trippy.

Her fragile, but musically insistent vocal on “St. James Infirmary,” the highlight of a pre-release EP of songs from Wishes, goes a long way toward entrenching Masakowski in the Big Easy jazz legacy. Well, that and some impressive bloodlines: Her mother Ulrike is a concert pianist. Her dad Steve Masakowski, who plays guitar with the terrific modern-jazz quartet Astral Project, has recorded two albums for Blue Note, and teaches at the University of New Orleans. He also produced Sasha’s debut CD, Musical Playground.

Still, as a singer with a musician’s flare for improvisation and color, Masakowski moves quickly away from the new standard of well-dressed ape-ists, stuck forever in some blow-dried, blindingly safe version of straight-ahead institutionalism. She has place in that tradition, but works furiously here and on Bionica’s Take Your City, to push out on the edges.

Drummer Julian Addison does a good job, for instance, of roughing up “St. James,” one of the more well-trod New Orleans favorites. Masakowski then uses the open spaces to more fully survey the pain of those left behind. She gets caught on the half-line “he’ll never find,” repeating it over and over, exposing a raw nerve, before finally letting go: “… another love like mine.”

Elsewhere, Maskakowski confidently extemporizes through the tangled jumble of invention by pianist James Westfall and bassist Jasen Weaver on the title track of Wishes, an original by Masakowski. “Yours,” co-written with producer Westfall, is a whispering, Rhodes-driven ballad that floats like smoke. The preview EP closes with “Canto de Oassanha,” this shimmering Brazilian number that recalls her work around town with Nova Nola. Masakowski adds a spicy samba vocal amid layered rhythms, and another delicately ruminative solo by Westfall on the electric piano.

Westfall helps define Bionica’s sound, as well, playing keyboards and writing two of the five tracks on last year’s Take Your City EP. The band’s name — Westfall has said it suggests “trying to find the life in the machine, or for the machine” — is its own perfectly apt description of what follows.

Bionica blends frenetic rock rhythms with fusion-era jazz and what-now electronics, ginning up something that sounds at times like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, but with a daringly sensual singer. Or maybe electronica, if it had a heart thumping with dark jazz musings.

On the skipping title track, composed by second keyboardist Rex Gregory, Masakowski’s voice is buried deep in the electro-pop clatter — to the point that it often becomes another musical component. She seems to echo the Rhodes, then simply outraces the song’s frenzied programming. Take Your City is off to a fast start.

The dazzling “Colossus,” written by Westfall, winds through a lyric out of Sylvia Plath before it unravels into a spiralling, untamed excursion. Gregory’s “Island Movement Systems,” with an odd time signature and space-girl vocals, builds into an anthematic fusion piece only to settle into a sequence of dioramic experiments in sound.

A stamping percussive din by Nick Solnick powers the intriguing dialogues found on Gregory’s futuristic “Bionic Bloom,” as he and Westfall tweak and twitch across a diverse landscape of doob-rock, trance and ambient music. Westfall’s “Commodore,” named after an early personal computer, begins as a straight-ahead prog thing before stopping cold: Bionica then reconstructs the tune into nervy, gouging angles — wait, is that a keytar? — before returning home for the EP’s rousing finale.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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