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Raya Yarbrough: Raya Yarbrough

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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It's always a pleasure to welcome another genre-busting talent, and Raya Yarbrough, the LA-based singer/songwriter whose music is an artful mix of jazz, blues and pop, is just that.



Yarbrough acquired her B.A. from the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, where she won the Quincy Jones Award and the Herb Alpert Scholarship; later, she was selected for a Betty Carter Jazz Ahead composition residency at the Kennedy Center. One of her teachers was the estimable Shelly Berg, a past president of IAJE who now heads the music school at Miami University. "Raya was my student, he says, "and she's always been one of my favorites. She is an effervescent person [whose] music reflects wide musical tastes and influences. Another professor, the Grammy-winning John Clayton, notes that, although he didn't work as closely with her, "her talent has always been apparent.



That talent and eclectic approach are both on full display on Raya Yarbrough, her recording debut for Telarc. Yarbrough's voice is clear and soulful throughout her four-octave range, and she wields it with absolute authority and ease; a rare combination at any age, this is particularly notable for a twenty-something singer. Yarbrough also writes intelligent lyrics and intriguing hooks, and the recording quality, band, and arrangements—all but one of them hers—are consistently first-rate.



Yarbrough begins with the sultry, commanding blues of "Lord Knows I Would," and follows it with the rueful "You're So Bad For Me, where a singsong reggae beat perfectly captures the helpless back-and-forth of an addictive relationship. There's a Kurt Weill/Threepenny Opera vibe to "Round We Go, while the Latin-flavored "Hollywood Magic is full of sly and edgy wit. Jazz fans will most appreciate the tender vocalese of "Mood Indigo, the completely fresh take on "Joy Spring, and the moody, densely-strung "Early Autumn, with its layered vocals and that boldly dissonant note that still rings in my ears. The sensuous "Dreamer's Ball opens with a Gospel convocation; "Better Days" has the rhythmic urgency of rap, and on "Sorrow's Eyes, Yarbrough sounds like a softer, more accessible Patricia Barber.



And speaking of other vocalists: it's a safe bet that there will be many critical comparisons between Yarbrough and Norah Jones. In truth both women are mixed-race, relatively young and have musical fathers; both have pop sensibilities and play piano (Yarbrough plays acoustic guitar as well); and both are blessed with lovely dark eyes, sweet voices, and the confidence of a major jazz label. But Jones wrote or co-wrote only three of the songs on her debut, while Yarbrough wrote music and/or lyrics to all but one. There's also a distinct sameness and naivete to Jones' Come Away with Me that's missing from Raya Yarbrough, which is more worldly and jazz-rooted, with sharply perceptive takes on the gain and loss of love and friendship.



In sum, this is no fast-food CD—it's more like a nourishing buffet that offers tasty new morsels on every visit. Precociously seasoned and unusually engaging, Raya Yarbrough is a truly remarkable debut.


Track Listing: Lord Knows I Would; You're So Bad for Me; Joy Spring; Dreamer's Ball; Sorrow's Eyes; Mood Indigo; Early Autumn; Listen, Emily; Hollywood Love; Round We Go; Vice and Vanity; Better Days.

Personnel: Raya Yarbrough: vocals; guitar, piano; Takeshi Akimoto: guitar; John Kirby: piano, keyboards; Kaveh Rastegar: bass; Nate Wood: drums; Brian Swartz: trumpet and flugelhorn; Warren Lueing: trumpet; Katisse Buckingham: alto and tenor saxophones, flutes; Dan Higgins: alto saxophone; Keith Fiddmont: tenor saxophone; Robert Anderson, Paul Cartwright: violins; Tom Lea: viola; Joacob Szekely: cello; Jonathon snipes: loops.

Title: Raya Yarbrough | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Telarc Records


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