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Ellen Christi: Diverse Materials

Nic Jones By

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All jazz singers worthy of the name have been able to draw upon a depth of interpretive power sufficient to make something out of frequently trite lyrics. The most extreme example of this, that is to say the example who could draw from the deepest well of such power, was of course Billie Holiday, and there is countless recorded evidence of this. Of vocalists who have moved outside of both the territory of the lyric and the voice's very function in jazz, Jeanne Lee was the one who, until comparatively recently, most successfully bridged the divide between jazz and more abstract musical areas. Both Lauren Newton and Ellen Christi have in their own ways expanded on Lee's precedent, though at least one of them would probably claim that her music has no more than a tangential relationship to the jazz canon.

Ellen Christi's voice has a similar timbre to Lee's, and the two albums discussed here amount to ample evidence that she has a similarly exploratory musical nature. Aliens Talk is to be precise a co-operative venture, with Christi billed equally alongside guitarists Claudio Lodati anf Luigi Archetti, and bassist Jan Schlegel. The nature of the quartet's music bears this out -at no time is the jazz tradition evoked on any level other than the tangential, and in a series of pieces ranging in length from almost ten minutes to five seconds, Christi effectively rewrites the vocalist's rule book. The moon -either in June or any other month- is conspicuous only by its absence, and here the idea is rather different to that of making something out of someone else's lyric. Frequently the instrumental deployment allows Christi's voice to function as the sole human element in an otherwise disorientating world, and for all the passing resemblance to some of Miles Davis's electric groups the sound world the group creates is one comparatively less concerned with rhythmic momentum. Elsewhere -and with minimal backing- Christi reduces her voice to a whisper, and the overall effect is of language having outstayed its welcome.

In comparison Instant Reality not only has a title that misleads, but also severs even the most tenuous connection with anything acknowledged as jazz. In the midst of the supposed triumph of post-modernism here there's music that might only have been produced in the last couple of decades, so rich is its diversity and the diversity of sources from which it draws. The old cliche about the voice being deployed as an instrument is subjugated, and the results are by turns unsettling and invigorating. The likes of bassist William Parker are unquestionably integral to the success of the music, and "America America!" is given a subversive reading in which Christi's reiteration of the line beginning 'Let its freedom....' is enough to provoke frothing denunciations from the conservatives.

What we might just have here is a vocalist augmenting the materials available to her. The instruments on both discs, heavy on the strings and lacking a conventional rhythm section in both cases, suggest music that's coming from a place other than the Great American Songbook. But more profoundly, the effective denial of that songbook suggests -perhaps by default alone- an engagement with the world as it is, as opposed to how it was in, say, 1937; certainly some of Christi's own lyrics suggest this, and her music as found on these two discs is an effective take on the truly contemporary.

Visit Ellen Christi on the web at www.ellenchristi.com .


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