Lola Danza: Vision Quest
New York jazz singer and composer Lola Danza has a background in avant-garde jazz and, before that, in classical singing. Active on the New York scene since 2007, when she arrived from Boston and Berkelee School of Music studies, the singer has immersed herself in predominantly free jazz performance. Already attracted to the idea of free improvisation in Boston, Danza progressed to completely free expression with an album released in 2009 entitled Live Free (Evolver, 2009). The record was of a quartet live performance at Boston's Ryles Club, where Danza allowed her voice to range freely over her four octave vocal span, while her musicians followed their own collective muses as the group created long sound works that the singer left untitled and un-dubbed.
Before her move to New York and her freer experiments, however, Danza led an essentially melodic, song-based group in Boston with the unusual line-up of two double basses behind voice and trumpet. The group's gigs attracted a following, and she recorded the lyrical music they were playing (largely her own compositions) on an album of ethereal yet precise vocals pirouetting against the basses, entitled Vision Quest (Evolver, 2005).
Vision Quest is a substantial statement. The two bassists are John Lockwood and Garth Stevenson, and their instruments sit under and color Danza's questioning vocals. The classical-like soundscape is completed by trumpet Phil Grenadier, with occasional accordion (Todd Marston) and percussion (the legendary Boston figure Nat Mugavero). Danza was inspired to write the music by a relationship breakdown, and the titles of some of the songs trace the subject. Finding solace in the creation of music (the best reaction to such events), Danza created a personable masterpiece.
Lyrical and softly murmuring trumpet begins the album on "The Unheard Song," then Danza's voice, enunciating wordless vocals, joins the elegant and reflective melody. The attractive theme plays until a free passage with basses and trumpet, which settles into the theme as the trumpet percolates variations on it. Danza brings in the main tune again. Finally, a bass sits on the dominant until the piece fades to the accompaniment of a rocking bass figure until the resolution. It has a unique title, which perhaps asks, "What was heard, and what did I missshould I listen again in case part of the message escaped me?"
Danza's individualistic take on Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack" is the second track, and it is probably better then the original by the British band. Radiohead writes interesting music, and have even seen an entire album of classical versions of its tunes in an arrangement written and recorded superbly by Christopher O'Riley. Danza communicates the tune by, again, wordless vocals, set over the ticking of a movie projector and an accordion. Without words in the way, the tune really bounces across, emphasizing the ultimate hegemony of music over words in music. Though Radiohead's lyrics are thought-provoking, its song titles are probably really the thing to focus on, and of course the music. Danza's version enables the music to be absorbed, and the music is the real point of this composition.
As a composer, that is Danza's ultimate focus. This version is more potent than the original, or, as a catch-phrase of Monty Python once said, "It makes you think." At over five minutes, there is plenty of variation.
The third track is entitled "JKL," for bassist Lockwood. He begins the haunting music solo and is soon joined by his co-bassist Stevenson. Danza's voice enters, and sets up the high and long arc of the pieceit is well over seven minutes in length with quasi-Asian quasi-Bjork statements. This tune is the first of the longer free improvisations on the album, but there is no meandering. The intense focus is maintained throughout, mainly by Danza's tuneful and meaningful melodic fragments and longer lines. She gives the impression of speaking, yet the notes are still wordless.
Midway, the interaction between voice and bass sounds like a conversation. Arco bass joins to carry the music to a new locale, and in its finale Danza relaxes into a kind of reflective commentary on what has gone before. The tune is now revealed to be a binary piece. The instruments, which of course include Danza's voice, fade to leave thought-provoking space, silence.
As if to explain the music so far, Danza's fourth track is a cover of Beck's "It's All In Your Mind," from his Sea Changes (Geffen, 2002) album. Danza says that she found a lot in this Beck album, and notes that a surprise relationship breakup was also behind his record, just as it was the trigger for hers.
The tune begins like a Lou Reed effortthink Herbie Flowers' basses on "Walk On The Wildside." Danza sings the words this time: "Well I cannot believe, you've got a devil up your sleeve... and I wanted to be... your good friend." Her identification with the lyrics adds poignancy, carried sonically by both her plaintive vocals and the sympathizing basses. In fact, pride of place on this track may be with the bass, as semi-Prokoviev figures emanate from both following the vocals. Pattering of bass joins with soft trumpet to point up the originality of (and mileage that could be gained by Danza from) this involving sound, which is characteristic of the album.
Her take on this song is broader than Beck's minimal guitar dirge. Danza finds the possibilities of expansion in the music.
After all this exposition-like music (the first four songs), it is time for a change of mood, and the next track "GSP," named for Stevenson, begins with the bass imitating an extreme reverb setting on a guitar amplifier. Webern-like bass joins as Stevenson takes a high part of the chord to contrast with the more conventional lower bass of Lockwood. The sixths and thirds provide a link to Danza's vocals here, as a free play-out takes the piece to the end.
A sombre beginning from the basses introduces the grand and majestic sweep of the next tune, "Lola's Lament." Chords evocative of a landscape unfold. Solo trumpet calls in the wild, and then higher notes from the bass, and Danza and the trumpet play over percussion. On occasion, Danza sounds a little like Bjork in some passages, and this track includes examples. Danza says she was influenced by Bjork's first album Debut (One Little Indian, 1993) and the later and more vocally-experimental Medulla (Elektra/WEA, 2004). Danza's interest in exploring new sounds is well demonstrated on this track. (Another example of this is on "JKL").
Danza's love of striking clear and book-ended melody, which may surprise some given her longer and more extended dramatic vocalizings on the freer tracks here, is beautifully demonstrated on "Cecilia." The bass introduces the hooky melody immediately and Danza's voice joins it wordlessly in a mid to high register. Lockwood plays a brilliant solo building in steps, until Danza re-joins with her vocals.
"Mountain Rabbit" is the concluding tune, and its opening shows Danza's liking for involved harmonic tension and build up. The main tune is a charming and pretty song written by Danza to the words of a Korean children's song, that all Korean mothers sing to their children. The drama of the earlier music on the album dissolves into the warm security of nursery rhyme: the music however is clear and classically-informed. The opening slow down/break down section returns to end the piece, leaving the hope that the composer has in fact found peace from the emotional storms of the earlier music.
Vision Quest presents a sound world of its own. Not only does it feature far-ranging compositionfrom songs to freer arrangementsbut it also introduces a very appealing texture, that of melodic vocals over two basses, with a trumpet as melodic partner. Percussion is spare. Danza likes classical, orchestral sound, and this sound has been approximated on the album in a very fruitful way.
Tracks: The Unheard Song; Motion Picture Soundtrack; JKL; It's All In Your Mind; GSP; New Beginnings; Lola's Lament; Cecilia; Mountain Rabbit.
Personnel: Lola Danza: voice; John Lockwood: bass; Garth Stevenson: bass; Phil Grenadier: trumpet; Nat Mugavero: drums; Phil Sargent: guitar (6); Todd Marston: accordion (2, 4).