This is an album whose authenticity and directness of expression is matched only by its underlying artistic complexity and conceptual nuances. Kosi Gyebi Sorensen (Akosua Gyebi) is a New York-based singer and composer whose vocal persona on this album is that of a young woman of humble origins struggling with the trials of intimacy and love, the apotheosis of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
. The Facebook pages of the singer herself, however, reveal a sophisticated, intellectually gifted African American woman who thinks deeply about such literature as Milton's Paradise Lost
and Dante's Divine Comedy
. Since she composed most of the songs on the album and gathered around her some very gifted musicians, what comes out is an extraordinarily well-crafted and beautifully articulated folio of songs deeply formed by a source within herself. They embody elements of many genres but are all based in the blues and mainstream jazz. The two jazz "standards"" (that term is in quotes because they are all too rarely performed) are "Wild is the Wind" by film composer Dmitri Tiomkin with Ned Washington, and "Star Crossed Lovers," a Duke Ellington
composition, both haunting ballads that set the stage for Kosi's own words and music.
"Wild is the Wind" was recorded by Nina Simone
, whose versions were overwhelmingly powerful, indeed hard acts to follow. Kosi renders the song in the same key, with the same slow tempo, but vocalizes it in a more introspective, intimate manner than Simone. She uses Aretha Franklin
embellishments which recur throughout the album and give the music a surprising Motown accent. Kosi's style on this song is, to quote a line from the poet James Wright, "as delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist."
The first original composition, "I Already Know" conveys the theme of the album: "Because I already know, I already know, I already know/ how you're going to break my heart." The use of a repeated mantra-like chant is one of the poetic techniques adopted by Kosi and announces that the "Us" of the album title refers to intimate relationships that have come to an end. (The nature of the relationship, whether sexual, romantic, or platonic, is sometimes ambiguous.) The arrangement employs "call and response" tenor saxophone interjections and a chorus by Brendon Biagi
, with improvisational turns that complement the earthiness of the lyrics.
In a short song called "Brianna," Kosi employs vocal shifts between soprano and alto registers. She sings about a woman friend or lover who brings out the feminine in the singer. There is a bisexuality here that characterizes much of the intimacy of the text. The last two lines are almost whispered, as if the love is secret. Jazz standards are usually taken to refer to heterosexual romances, but this song reveals the deeper truth of an inherent bisexuality in jazz.
If there is true beauty still left in this tarnished world, it can be found in the all-too-rarely played ballad by Duke Ellington entitled "The Star Crossed Lovers." In the Ellington band's recording, the great saxophonist Johnny Hodges
plays the slow and tender melody. Kosi seems to emulate Hodges, as she sings legato in her upper register. Aron Marchak
provides a superb guitar solo. Here again, another of Kosi's brilliant poetic genre shifts take place, as the listener begins to detect a hint of the soprano aria from Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5."
The title song, "Pictures of Us" takes the listener by surprise with its "Take Five" rhythm! In contrast to Dave Brubeck
and Paul Desmond
's coolness, this tune gives the five-four meter a strong rhythm and blues emphasis. As in the male-femle duets in the era of the swing bands, vocalist Jonathan Rooke sings in unison with Kosi. The combination of cool, swing, and rhythm and blues is like a Rubick's Cube of music, but Kosi and the group make all the pieces fit.
"Your Angel" could easily be heard as a gospel hymn. It is a song about a girl who feels like an evil outcast and is redeemed by the unconditional love of her partner. "I can deal with what they say if I'm an angel to you."
"Valerie" is a straight ahead blues in three-quarter time. It brings out the importance of memories for lovers: "and yet the tender way we danced that day stays on my mind. And I want you to know that I still dance down that street." Throughout the album, there are plain lyrics that express nuanced aspects of love and loss. As in "Brianna," this song expresses bisexuality because one could understand the singer to be male or female. "Untitled Art Song in E minor" is brilliantly arranged with an echo effect and once again a Brazilian Villa-Lobos flavor, highlighted by Dan Solpaugh's Spanish- style guitar. In the manner of an opera aria, the quiet ambiance suddenly becomes explosively dramatic. "How dare you" is shouted hysterically into the night. The sense of love not working out ("Cold lips to warm skin; Cold ice to warm gin") gives the song the bitter taste of Elvis Costello
's "Almost Blue."
"Hoboken Blues" is a straight ahead blues that is given a postmodern twist by the choice of Hoboken as the place of no return and the "'A' Train" as the escape. The imitation of those precious old 78 rpm blues records from the 1920s makes for an inevitable comparison to the chanteuse Ma Rainey
, who inspired Billie Holiday
The closing track, "Lovers' Song (Be the One)" is a bossa nova in which Kosi almost becomes a channel for Aretha Franklin's voice.
The simplicity combined with subtlety of the songs composed by Kosi on this album suggest that, if she continues in this vein, she may one day be known as an African American Antonio Carlos Jobim
. Like Jobim, she writes naturally from the heart, in everyday language, and her musical forms borrow brilliantly from many idioms but always reflect jazz and Kosi's cultural roots. It will be interesting to follow the evolution of this multi-talented singer and composer.