One of the most pleasant surprises of the '04 Ottawa International Jazz Festival was organist Vanessa Rodrigues, who appeared as part of saxophonist Dave Turner's quartet
. At a mere 26 years of age, she delivered accompaniment so empathic and solos so well constructed that the only disappointment was that her work had never been documented on record. Until now. With Soul Project
Rodrigues steps out with infectious grooves and outstanding playing, paying homage to the established organ trio tradition while remaining completely modern.
While Rodrigues has a strong background in everything from classical piano to more spiritual works on church pipe organ, it's clearly the soul-drenched music of artists like Dr. Lonnie Smith, with whom Rodrigues spent a month as a live-in student, that is her main passion. On Soul Project Rodrigues is teamed with guitarist Donna Grantis, a player with a warm, Grant Green-esque tone and similarly blues-informed approach; and drummer Jean-Pierre Levesque, who is as comfortable with the New Orleans second line approach of "Marble Rye" as he is the deeper funk of "The Red Dirt Jam." Turntablist DJ Killa-Jewel is featured on four of tracks, adding a taste of hip hop to the mix.
The album's vibe bears some precedence in guitarist John Scofield's collaboration with Medeski, Martin and Wood, A Go Go , in terms of its in-the-pocket approach, but it avoids the more idiosyncratic playing typical of Scofield and Medeski. That's not to say Rodrigues and her trio are without energy and edge. Rodrigues is a more inside player, but with a keen sense of developmentcheck out her playing on "The Red Dirt Jam," where she fashions a solo that builds in intensity so gradually one is almost unaware that it's happening. Similarly, on "Be Careful What You Wish For," Levesque takes DJ Killa-Jewel's solo and invisibly pulls up the dynamics. As much as everyone's playing reflects an intellectual bent, the inherent physicality of the group gives it much of its appeal.
While the programme consists mainly of originals penned by Rodrigues and Grantis, the trio's take on Thelonious Monk's classic "Bemsha Swing" is notable for demonstrating just how one can take liberties without losing sight of a tune's essence. Building the music over a quasi-reggae feel, Rodrigues stretches and twists the recognizable theme so that it lives in a completely new context. Grantis' solo is so relaxed it sneaks up on you.
As democratic as things are, this is really Rodrigues' showcase. While her training, including attendance at the Banff Centre for the Arts and a degree in jazz piano from McGill University, gives her formidable technical ability, she never sacrifices feel for more cerebral concerns. Soul Project , as well-executed as it is, is an audacious début all about heart and soul from an artist who will no doubt continue to be heard from in the future.
Visit Vanessa Rodrigues on the web.
Personnel: Vanessa Rodrigues (Hammond B-3 Organ), Donna Grantis (guitar), Jean-Pierre Levesque (drums), DJ Killa-Jewel (turntables on "The Red Dirt Jam," "Be Careful What You Wish For," "Killa-Jewel in Da House," "Sconk")