Elizabeth Shepherd – The Signal (2014)

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I don’t think of Elizabeth Shepherd as a jazz singer per se but rather a singer-songwriter keyboardist who happens to perform within the jazz realm. As one of those rare outlier types whose style sits between the RnB washes of Jose James, the streetwise beat poetry of Rickie Lee Jones and the avant leanings of Maria Neckam, Shepherd is an original in a field of jazz singers that has but a precious few of them.

She was even able to show that originality when she made a full-on standards album Rewind in 2012 that Jordan Richardson rightly noted as “always enlightening and always spirited,” but two years later for her fourth LP, she’s made a full-on self-composed album, The Signal, (out September 30, 2014 by Linus Entertainment) and this woman of vast artistic range holds nothing back.

Shepherd might use jazz as a jumping off point, but she leaps right into African forms native to both Africa and to African America, using her poignant lyrics in the service of tough topics like forced marriages in Africa and the murder of Trayvon Martin, but mostly undertaking views from the perspective and empowerment of being a woman. With the venerated Fender Rhodes as her main instrument, both Shepherd’s thoughtful lyrics and sophisticated harmonics makes her music like a less accessible (and ultimately just as satisfying) Steely Dan with a more serious purpose.

With all that going for Shepherd, Lionel Loueke’s appearance on The Signal is notable because Loueke is an original, too, one of the truly unique jazz guitarists to come along in the last fifteen or twenty years. The man from Benin spices up any session he’s asked to participate in (such as his key contribution on Jeff Ballard’s excellent Time’s Tales from earlier this year). That starts on the organic hip-hop beat and a ngoni being used on “Willow,” providing a well-suited setting for Loueke too add his guitar solo against this lean groove and perhaps a little of his signature scatting. He also appears on the gently poetic “This” and gets an extended run here with an acoustic guitar.

But aside from backing vocals on “Another Day,” Loueke isn’t anywhere else on the album and the rest of the songs are just as good if not better because Shepherd is a force on her own. “What’s Happening” has got this huge Rhodes hook, but just too much poise and finesse for Top 40 radio. Too bad for Top 40 radio. Her sultry purr that delivers an assailment on environmental destruction caused by industry is partnered with a slinky, smoky shuffle, steel pans and a Lead Belly sample on “BT Cotton.” Odd-meter rhythms and a vintage 70s fusion chord progressions on “Lion’s Den” makes an unlikely but deadly effective foundation for her rebuke of the institutionalized abuse of women in Africa, and Kevin Trucotte’s urgent trumpet in the darker outro conveys the mood in music that she just got done communicating with lyrics.

“I Gave” has modern beats, acoustic bass and the sampled words of Mother Teresa swirling alongside her kalimba, tuned bottles and breathy delivery. Neo-soul blended fluently with jazzy chords grace “On Our Way” and “Another Day” and “Baby Steps” gives us a first-hand account of being a new mother over angular, lopsided funk.

The Signal is bold, personal and completely lucid audio art from Elizabeth Shepherd. It wouldn’t be overstating it at all to assert that this is the most important vocal jazz record that will be released all year. Just don’t expect jazz — or anything else — in the strictest sense from an album that only adheres to Shepherd’s mysterious and multi-faceted muse.

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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