After reading Stanley Cowell’s acclamatory liner notes to Spirit Child, I was prepared to embrace the second coming of Sarah, Billie, Ella and Carmen in one glorious package. Lenora Zenzalai (“Zen–zay–lay,” Zulu for “spirit child”) Helm is a talented young singer who certainly shows promise, but no one could live up to the kind of advance praise that is showered upon her. I suppose I should have listened first, read later. Writers who are being paid by the compliment can sometimes get carried away and oversell the product. That seems to be the case here, although Helm does her best to ratify Cowell’s lavish endorsement. Truth is, she reminds me more of pop/Jazz singers like Diana Ross or Nancy Wilson than those legends whose names were mentioned earlier. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s simply a more realistic appraisal of where she stands musically. Helm has adequate tools with which to work including an adaptable mid–range voice and decent if not flawless enunciation. While she doesn’t hesitate to take chances with a lyric or modify a rhythmic pattern, not everything she tries is persuasive. Helm’s approach to the standards (“My Favorite Things,” “More Than You Know,” “Summertime”), always a reliable yardstick by which to measure a singer’s growth, is earnest but unmemorable. She’s also weighed down by a number of mediocre songs (some of them hers) and uninspiring arrangements (ditto), and her big–name guests (Marsalis, Brown, Liebman, Hart, Smith, Carter and so on) aren’t given much to do (although Hart offers some respectable ad–libs on “The Life That You Live” and Brown proves an able accompanist/soloist on “More Than You Know”). Helm wrote lyrics to two songs by Wayne Shorter (“Miyako,” “Footprints”) and renamed them “Spirit Child” and “Ode to a Soulmate.” She needn’t have bothered. To sum up — if there’s a word that seems to describe best Helm’s debut, that word is “promising.” That is to say, she does some things well but is not yet the creative colossus depicted in the liner notes. Perhaps one day she will be.
Track listing: Keep Takin’ Me Higher; My Favorite Things; Summer Soft; The Life That You Live May Not Be Your Own; More Than You Know; Boomerang; Twisted; Single Petal of a Rose; ’Round Midnight; Spirit Child; Ode to a Soulmate; Summertime (71:05).
Lenora Zenzalai Helm, vocals; Abraham Burton (2, 4, 6), Branford Marsalis (9), tenor sax; Mark Gross (1, 3, 4), David Liebman (8, 11), soprano sax; Antonio Hart, alto sax (4); Cecilia Smith, vibes (3, 8); Jiro Yoshida, guitar (3); Orrin Evans, Donald Brown (3, 5), piano; Miriam Sullivan, Ron Carter (7), bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Kahlil Kwame Bell, percussion; Sepia (Marlon Saunders, Arif St. Michael, Rosa Russ), background vocals (1, 3, 10).