The legacy of Laura Nyro deserves more than to rely on original recordings or innumerable covers; a member of a newer generation to make new music in that old spirit is needed to keep her eccentric, intelligent brand of pop vital and alive. So why not Ari Shagal?
Shagal is, like Nyro was, multi-talented. She can sing, play piano, arrange and produce, but songwriting mostly in the confessional mode is where she really excels. Building sharp, sometimes witty prose on top of harmonies that sound alluring on first listen but are still sinking under your skin on the fifth one, she hits on all the right touch points of the golden age of jazzy soul-pop roughly spanning the late 60s to the late 70s.
Shagal felt she needed the right medium to present her music in the optimum way and thus, The Summarily Dismissed was formed. It’s built around a nucleus of three lead vocalists in Shagal, Ferima Faye and Matthew Lomeo, who are backed by core instrumentalists Shagal (keyboards), Joe Davi (guitar), Eric Halvorson (drums) and Pat O’Leary (bass). Notable contributors include saxophonist Jessica Lurie and Nyro’s old percussionist, Nydia Mata. To Each is the first product of this collective built around Shagal’s musical mind.
The rotating cast of lead singers makes a bunch of sense considering that it allowed Shagal to freely use songs that suit the other singers better than herself (an obvious example being the male first person narrated “Your Salve For Sorrow”). Faye sounds the most like Nyro, at times nailing her vocal delivery dead-on and on other instances similar to a mixture of Nyro and the Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel. Lomeo doesn’t really sound like anyone — perhaps Lenny Williams with more baritone — but his mixture of soul and jazz delivery is a good match for the material. Shagal herself is a fine vocalist, evocative most of all of someone who sang a few of the most recognizable versions of Nyro songs, The Fifth Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo.
Time and again, there are songs on To Each that could have gotten away with being easy knock-offs of their inspirations, but the melodies and arrangements often go the extra mile to stand out as well-developed strains. “Oozing Awkward,” led by Faye, conjures up Santana’s “Evil Ways” groove but blossoms into sleek harmonies and meaty chord changes in the chorus, attributes that continue to pop up just when I expect the album will begin to fizzle out. The Lomeo-sung “Your Salve For Sorrow” has the characteristics of some soul classic performed by Al Green backed by The Tower of Power, but with a dash more suave. Shagal herself undertakes the charming, lightly accompanied “Why Couldn’t It Have Been Me?” that features some tasty jazz guitar by Davi. However, Davi’s best moment comes on the Skunk Baxter leads he plays on “Through The Wringer,” a blues that’s a sublime re-write of Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic” title track. “Limerent Buzz” channels Nyro via a crafty reworking of Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw The Light.” A couple of tracks go entirely unplugged: a polished jazz ballad, “Shade-Walking,” sung by noted jazz vocalist “Kenny Washington, and “Jersey Babes,” which follows in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, complete with a weepy trombone supplied by Danny Kirkhum. Every song takes on its own character, helped along by Shagal’s discerning arrangements and mastery of the soul, jazz and pop styles that she deftly mixes together.
The music of The Summarily Dismissed should be anything but. Ari Shagal is practicing revitalization of the dying art of mating deep, soulful song craft to the kind of performances it deserves, and To Each is indeed revitalizing.
To Each will be available for sale January 29 by Laureniac Song. Visit The Summarily Dismissed’s website for more info.