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Tiffany Austin: Unbroken

C. Michael Bailey By

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One of the greatest talents of the great talent, vocalist Betty Carter, was her ability to sing in different voice personalities. She could purr the purest ballad, scat the fastest bop run, and dig the deepest in the blue notes. Carter's legacy has been wanting for a new talent to bestow its mantle...and that talent is Tiffany Austin. Add to this talent the vision for selecting an integrating theme to the repertoire and Unbroken, the sophomore release after 2015's Nothing but Soul (Con Alma Music) emerges as a fully formed masterpiece. The integrating theme here is the celebration of the robust spirit of African-American Culture and with the spirit of Betty Carter flowing through this recital, Austin draws a line in the sand...a deep one.

At the center of "Unbroken" is the indelible connection between the blues and jazz. Austin notes that she has encountered multiple instances were modern jazz has tried to separate the two, remarking the folly therein, saying, "How can you divide the music that comes from the same diaspora, the same spirit." In that spirit, Austin carefully illustrates through a dozen originals and standards the indivisible spirit of blues-jazz and Black America, themselves, together, indivisible. Rather than a repertoire of twelve songs, Austin weaves an extended tone poem that reaches in all directions, touching all things.

Austin opens with her original composition, Unbroken, her homage to the great Louisiana singer/composer/accordionist Amede Ardoin (1898—1942), whose violent end mirrored so many of the period. Ardoin's complete catalog of recordings was compiled and released by Tomkins Records on Mama, I'll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin 1929—1934 (2011). "Blue Creole (for Amede)" is a bouncing swing-jazz, propelled by the crack rhythm section of pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Rodney Whitaker, and drummer Carl Allen, all once part of the Wynton Marsalis vernacular. Austin sings with all of the sensual gusto and abandon that Bessie Smith did in her homage to a pigfoot and a bottle of beer, but Austin's message is densely serious and grave. It is a unique juxtaposition of weighty subject matter versus ebullient music and singing.

But, just when the listener might have a grasp on direction of this recital, Austin introduces another original, "Greenwood." Again, against a brightly swinging back stop, Austin tells the sordid tale of mass murder in 1920s Tulsa Oklahoma's prosperous "Black Wall Street" neighborhood of "Greenwood" with a happy sweetness of the best Dinah Washington. Austin means to throw the listener off with these disparate messages of conflicting lyrics and delivery. She means to show that this Spirit will not be laid low, even when recalling low points. It is a triumph of the spirit and will.

The dramatic character of the disc is maintained with the traditional "Ain't No Grave (Can Hold My Body Down)." This spiritual gained attention recently appearing on Johnny Cash's final American Recordings release, Johnny Cash: American VI: Ain't No Grave (2010) and Tom Jones' excellent Praise and Blame (Island Records, 2010). These performances were that of the Prophet Elijah justifying his existence and mettle. Not so with Austin, who turns the spiritual on it ear, giving it a thorough contemporary make over at no expense to the necessary earthiness of the song. What Austin has done is refine the old song, gilding it with jazz splendor. She takes the dirt from her vocals on "Blue Creole" mixing it alchemically with the sophistication she brings to "Greenwood" to patent her "Grit and Grace."

Austin proves herself the vocalese/scat master throughout the disc. She has penned lyrics to Ornette Coleman's "The Blessing" and Charles Mingus' "Better Git It In Your Soul." These can immediately be considered major additions to the vocalese songbook, and Austin may take her place with Dorian Devins, Alyssa Allgood and Andrea Claburn as the best modern practitioner of the craft. Tiffany Austin has arrived. Period.

Track Listing: Blues Creole (For Amede); Greenwood; Ain't No Grave (Can Hold My Body Down); You Must Believe in Spring; The Blessing; Con Alma; King of Pleasure; Better Git It in Your Soul; Someday We'll All Be Free; Music's Gonna Meet Me There; Resolution; Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.

Personnel: Tiffany Austin: vocals; Ashlin Parker: trumpet; Mitch Butler: trombone; Teodross Avery: tenor sax; Cyrus Chestnut: piano; Rodney Whitaker: bass; Carl Allen: drums.

Title: Unbroken | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Con Alma Music

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