Vocal improvisation rarely strays far from scat, so it's something worth celebrating when a voice emerges with a distinct vocabulary. Afghan/German singer/composer Simin Tander is such a voice, and her debut is an intriguing offering of compositions sung in English, Spanish and her own, striking improvisations. Backed by a piano-led jazz trio which is both sympathetically supportive and subtly dynamic, Tander's instantly appealing voice, and uncommon approach to vocal jazzwithin a modern jazz quartet settingmakes for compelling listening.
"Shadowprints"one of three numbers sung in her entirely improvised language begins with Jeroen Van Vilet's simple piano motif, Cord Heineking's somber double bass and Etienne Nillesen's atmospheric mallets. Tander's delivery is satisfyingly melodic on a song which creeps up slyly in potency, with Van Vilet adding minimalist electronics. There's a stripped-down sound to the quartet, and a sense of less is more. Tander instinctively knows when to lay out and leave more space for her colleagues, and in doing so maximizes the impact of her own interventions. The bass is mostly a presence felt rather than heard, with the quartet's urgency suggested mainly by the interaction between piano and drums and vocals.
It's difficult to discern influences in Tander, though her improvisations on the vibrant "Becoming" recall Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah
. On the cantering title track and "Gallery of Remembrance," Tander's playful, exuberant created language evokes Portuguese jazz singer Maria Joao
. While Tander has a less striking range than either Sun Nah or Joao, her undeniably beautiful voice shares the soul-laid-bare intimacy and honesty of both singers. Tander's approach is more minimalist, and her bewitching vocal on a near-whispered "Windmills of Your Mind" points to her originality every bit as much as her free-wheeling improvisations.
There are enough moments of urgent playing in line with more traditional jazz, with Van Vliet matching classically-tinged lyricism with quite animated, adventurous runs. Tander's interaction with drums on "Gallery of Remembrance" provides pure excitement, and overall, there is a nicely weighted ebb and flow in the music's intensity. Whatever the context, the trio does a great job in supporting and framing Tander's vocals. The graceful vocals receive lyrical coloring from the trio, whereas the more abstract, spoken-word "Purity" is carried on a dreamy bed of washing cymbals and softly padding drums. Tander's ethereal, yearning voice on "Closed Eyes" is supported by ripples of piano and slightly trippy, though understated electronics.
Enchanting too, Tander's take on Puerto Rican balladeer Pedro Flores' ode to love, "Obsesión." The singer's Spanish vocal is full of the aching and desire that the lyrics demand. There's also a dreamy interpretation of singer Nick Drake's "River Man;" a lovely earthiness emanates from Heineking's bass, in beautiful tandem with Tander, as the singer caresses the words in soothing incantation.
Tander brings refreshing innovation to a modern jazz vocal panorama awash with repetition and weary imitation. Her voice is a thing of beauty, and this debut not only offers the promise of great things to come, but delivers from the get go.