It's not often that a singer like Maria Neckam comes along. Blessed with a voice that she can set free as it flutters and streaks into stellar regions of music, Neckam is still able to keep it in control. She has a natural ability for heartbreaking emotion, in much the same way that Billie Holiday
did. She sings flat, yet in her singing, quarter notes abound as she tells a story. Her voice soars making notes bend and flap as she soars high on wings like a dove. Neckam performs melodious compositions that are sometimes so twisted and beautiful that they devour the harmony all at once, much like a characteristic Hindustani raga.
It is precisely Neckam's knowledge that genres are manufactured that allows her to blur cultural borders so much that they cease to exist in her music. A fine example is "Fear." It is beautifully harmonic and melodious, and it's so rhythmically complex that it swerves closer to the characteristic 16-beat Hindustani rhythm pattern, teen taal, than to any recognizable Western music framework. However, framework is not something that Neckam deliberately inhabits as a stylistic mode. Her strength is inner rhythms and rhymes, with subtle shades of mood and emotion. This she projects exquisitely on "I Remember," a chart she wrote for voices, many of which she sings herself, although some are shared with singer Peter Eldridge
Singing in voices may be nothing new; Dave Lambert
, Jon Hendricks
, and Annie Ross
, Singers Unlimited
and groups like Take Six
have excelled in this inventive vocal expedition. But what sets Neckam apart are her songs. They feature lyrics that dwell on the concrete and are, in charts like "Blown Away" and "Learn My Tongue," almost stream-of-consciousness. There is something of the James Joyce of Pomes Pennyeach
(1927) in much of this album. Neckam adorns the poetry by traipsing across the vocal landscape, using her breath together with uncharacteristic intonation and phrasing, to create mighty and unforgettable whorls of songs.
It helps that Neckam is surrounded by a fine group of musicians. Pianist Aaron Goldberg
and bassist Thomas Morgan are superb with solos that breathe almost vocally as they match the high-flying emotion of "Blown Away." Neckam is not far behind as she hits highs rarely heard since Urszula Dudziak
with Michal Urbaniak
or Flora Purim
with Chick Corea
. The vivid colors of "Missing You" are wonderful in quite another sense, as they conjure images of a microcosmic world inhabited by creatures that feel like humans do. "Learn My Tongue," an odd little title for a song to start with, soon makes eminent sense as Neckam launches into a bluesy groove that suggests a complete breakdown in a relationship that can only be resolved by a biological miracle. The harmonics that proceed as a result are a joy to listen to, proving that Neckam is a vocalist unafraid to go where mostly Sufi poets and musicians inhabit their devotional art.
Personnel: Maria Neckam: voice; Aaron Goldberg: piano; Thomas Morgan: double bass; Colin Stranahan: drums; Lars Deitrich: alto saxophone (2, 3, 5, 8, 9); Samir Zarif: tenor saxophone (5, 8, 9); Peter Eldridge: voice (6).