Danilo Perez and Somi at the Kimmel Center
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
March 19, 2010
In this concert, the performance by Danilo Perez' group (entitled "Things to Come: 21st Century Dizzy") was supplemented with an opening set by the up-and-coming vocalist Somi, making for an interesting combination of diverse jazz flavorings. Somi's unique African-based renderings was followed by compositions dedicated to or written by Dizzy Gillespie, which were energetically executed with distinctly postmodern arrangements and interpretations.
Somi is a remarkable singer. Her range goes as low as Nina Simone's and as high as Roberta Gambarini's, echoing styles from singers as varied as Sarah Vaughan and folksinger Miriam Makeba. As Somi's All About Jazz biography states, "A true multicultural woman, Somi was born in Illinois to immigrants from Rwanda and Uganda, then spent her early childhood in Zambia." She composes many of her songs and achieves a successful integration of American jazz and blues with African expressions and modal scales. This style exemplifies the "world music" notions of John Coltrane and others, which also may presage things to come.
With her strong personality and resilient voice, she bears the true marks of a great jazz singer. Musically, Somi goes wherever she wants, conveying strong feelings, yet staying within a distinct form and style that she then makes her own by utilizing the form in her own unique way. The form Somi uses is a that of a story, myth or legend expressed in an eclectic mix of African song and dance seamlessly integrated with blues, gospel and modern jazz idioms, which, of course, all ultimately were derived from African sources. For instance, a hypnotic original composition called "Quietly," began in a soft, contemplative way, as if on an African plain at twilight. Gradually, like Ravel's "Bolero," it built into a passionate trance-like expression of irrepressible eroticism and love. Metaphysical presences of "light, water, and air" appeared, echoing Dave Liebman's album, The Elements: Water (Arkadia, 1997). As the love-obsessed soul of the singer unraveled, it told a story that traveled both inside and outside the mind. Somi weaves complex plots and subplots the way that only a handful of jazz musicians have doneLiebman,Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Coltrane and Wayne Shorter come immediately to mind.
In the song "Most Beloved," she used modal improvisation to express an entrancing emotion. This was highlighted and contrasted with a highly-charged, rapid-fire, single-line, right-hand improvisation by her pianist Tori Dodo, as if to evoke the animus, the shadow-side of love. The title song of Somi's album, If the Rains Come First (2009, ObliqSound), begins with a mountainous cadenza by bassist Michael Olatuja, and manifests Somi's resilience in using the elements of the human voice to evoke elements in nature and the words of the ancestors. Bebop phrases are seamlessly woven into the African tribal fabric. Both John and Alice Coltrane would have loved Somi's finale at the concert, "African Lady (The Anti-Domestic Violence Anthem)"Alice for its liberating message and 'Trane for its fervent voice of the preacher, its rapid, sometimes twisting scat choruses, and its periodic use of intervals reminiscent of "Giant Steps."
Akin to the creative and envelope-pushing male vocalist JD Walter, Somi is extending the limits of jazz singing. Since she also has the cachet of a true "diva," she is going to blow music lovers away. It should also be said that her backup group of piano, guitar, bass and drums did a superb job of bringing out their own individual musical qualities while supporting Somi and never getting in her way.