Maroon: Who the Sky Betrays (2003)
In a world populated with a plethora of female jazz singers whose focus is to interpret, reinterpret and interpret, yet again, the Great American Songbook, it is refreshing to hear Maroon, whose latest disk, Who the Sky Betrays combines jazz improvisation, a strong pop sensibility and contemporary grooves into a wholly unique experience.
The influences here are clear: take a dash of M-BASE ("When the Storm Comes"), a pinch of ambient (Radiohead's "The Tourist"), a taste of modern jazz balladry ("Show Me") and a hint of hip-hop ("Bully on the Block"); singer Hillary Moon and her supporting cast blend these diverse influences into something that could only come from the urban sprawl of New York City.
The group takes the traditional piano trio and refashions it into a completely contemporary sound. With a subtle inclusion of electronics a la E.S.T., and a sometimes aggressive style that owes something to The Bad Plus, Maroon sounds more like a pop band with an improvisational sensibility than a jazz group working in the other direction.
Maroon's lyrics lean towards the political, with "Bully on the Block" fairly directly assessing the Bush administration's foreign policy; "Beyond the Bliss" questions the future after a brief meeting; "Is This the Time?" considers how to live in these troubled times.
Maroon, pianist Benny Lackner, bassist Derek Nievergelt and drummer Lance Carter are joined on five tracks by the inimitable Marc Ribot, whose guitar ranges from a textural backdrop on "The Tourist" to jagged and angular on "Is This the Time?" Nate Wooley and Alex Hamlin contribute a dissonant horn section to "When the Storm Comes" and "Beyond the Bliss."
Maroon is able to put a new spin on things, even over-worked material like "When I Fall in Love." The treatment is harmonically open, recalling Miles' '60s quintet in its avoidance of the obvious. Arrangements of Soundgarden, John Lennon and Chrissie Hynde material reveal the breadth of the group's musical influences and knowledge.
Hillary Maroon's voice whispers and growls, rasps and soars. Like the rest of the group, she is less concerned with displaying her own considerable chops and more interested in creating a collective sound that is distinctive in its reassessment of the languages that form its roots. Who the Sky Betrays is an important release of contemporary pop with a strong jazz sensibility, with a crossover appeal that deserves to be heard by fans of both genres.
Track Listing: 1. Is This the Time?; 2. Bully on the Block; 3. Will It Matter Who We Were?; 4. The Tourist; 5. When the Storm Comes; 6. Show Me; 7. Black Hole Sun; 8. Beyond the Bliss; 9. Spun Me Shakey; 10. When I Fall in Love; 11. Isolation
Personnel: Hillary Maroon (vocals), Benny Lackner (piano, rhodes piano, nord lead 2, nord electro, hohner pianet), Derek Nievergelt (acoustic bass), Lance Carter (drums). Guests: Marc Ribot (guitar on 1, 4, 5, 8, 11), Nate Wooley (trumpet on 1, 5, 8, 10), Alex Hamlin (alto sax on 1, 5, 8).