Maria Neckam – Unison (2012)

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photo: Ben Goldsein (feature photo: Ursula Schmitz)

At times, jazz vocalist Maria Neckam’s music sounds like Joni Mitchell during her mid-70s jazz excursion but with a Annette Peacock stream-of-conscienceness flow and Bjork-like modern sensibility, delivered with pipes as pure as Suzanne Vega. Yet, she always stays rooted in jazz but branching out to wherever the mood of the song takes her. Neckam, in her third upcoming release Unison, is already emerging as a true original.

Back in ’10, Mark Saleski took a stab at her prior disc Deeper, and even he struggled to find an adequate description of her singular talents but despite, or maybe because of, the eccentricities and complex interplay, found it fun and satisfying. That’s just how Unison strikes me.

Again supported by a basic backing unit of some of NYC’s hottest young players: Aaron Parks (piano), Thomas Morgan (acoustic bass) and Colin Stranahan (drums), with guest appearances by others belonging to the same crowd, Neckam puts forth a horn ‘o’ plenty of seventy-five minutes packed with fifteen originals. Congruent with her Buddhist beliefs, these songs often touch on uplighting themes of insight, wisdom and enlightenment, and two of them, “Where Do You Think You Will Be?” and “Solitude” even puts music to the words of poets she admires (Hafez and Rainer Maria Rilke). Since she constructs melodies around words instead of the other way around, she’s liberated to fully bring to life other people’s words, not just her own.

“I Miss You” (video of live performance below) kicks off the album in the closest she gets to crossover pop she’ll get for the whole album. Even where this song, so light and non-threatening, creates an edge from a slightly unconventional intonation that dances around the simple beat. On tunes such as “The Story,” “Unison,” and “You And I,” her singing dialogues bracket instrumental interludes that could stand apart on their own as intricate, intelligent pieces of modern jazz that sometimes even push out to avant garde, but never in an atonal way. Though Neckam plays almost no instruments on the record, it’s notable that all the music on this album came from her pen, and to call her a mere “songstress” would be woefully inadequate way to describe her.

Neckam understands how to use use her voice as a musical instrument, not just a delivery mechanism for lyrics: on “One Day,” accompanied only by Morgan, she mixes in wordless vocals with lyrics, assuming the role of sax player. On the very next song, “Solitute,” she sings among saxophones (Lars Dietrich, Samir Zarif) and harmonizes perfectly with them. The lyric-less “January 2011” — Nir Felder contributes a masterly guitar solo — finds her following the piano lines, much as Brazilian vocalists do, but it’s not a Brazilian song. She also vocally improvises on it, but it’s not quite scat, either. These are but a couple of instances found all over the record where she deploys tried and true devices in creative new ways.

Evocative of many but duplicative of no one, Maria Neckam advances her art with Unison, a record bound to make some waves in the hard-to-impress world of New York modern jazz.

Unison will be available for sale June 6, by Sunnyside Records. Visit Maria Neckam’s website for more info.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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