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Emma-Jean Thackray: Yellow

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Emma-Jean Thackray: Yellow
Many of the most prominent exponents of melding jazz with soul, funk and hip-hop have been trumpeters. Even in the late 1970s, Chuck Mangione was already taking soul-jazz and moving it further into an R&B orbit (and taking heat from jazz purists for supposedly "selling out"), and in so doing exposing lots of pop fans to jazz for the first time.

Herb Alpert, no stranger to bringing jazz influences to pop music, transitioned from his jazz-influenced easy listening hits of the 1960s with the Tijuana Brass into 1980s synth-soul with 1983's Blow Your Own Horn (A&M). Three years later, he teamed up with star R&B producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to bring jazz-inflected music back to the top of the charts with the 1987 single "Keep Your Eye On Me."

Miles Davis put his own indelible stamp on things with 1992's heavily mixed Doo-Bop (Warner Bros), issued some 10 months after his passing -although that album had more of a hip-hop groove than old-school soul. Dutch trumpeter Saskia Laroo took things into an even further orbit in 1994 with "Jazz Dance," which was firmly acid jazz—but unlike many acid jazz combos that emphasized ensemble work and sampling, had her Davis influenced virtuosic trumpet front and center.

Now comes Emma-Jean Thackray, a British trumpeter, singer, composer and arranger who's found a sweet groove somewhere between funk, soul jazz and acid jazz, all of it firmly anchored in the firmament that is jazz. While most of the songs on her first full-length album are eminently danceable, this is still a thinking-person's dance music.

The most apropos comparison to Thackray's multi-layered, swirling sounds may be George Clinton , more so than the above fellow horn players. Clinton's bands Parliament Funkadelic were as deep into funk as any band, and lit up many a 1970s' dance floor. Yet their music was never as immediately accessible as were the sounds of groups like The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, or Ohio Players. But what Parliament and Funkadelic lacked in immediate accessibility they more than made up for with sophisticated arrangements, and thoughtful, complex lyrics unlike anything the other bands were tackling.

So it is with Thackray. You can dance to most of her songs just as easily as you can any acid jazz or smooth jazz combo—but you can also listen to it as the serious music it is.

The EPs she has issued over the past five years only hinted at the fully realized musical vision found on Yellow. Her first EP, in 2016, was in a vein of early Medeski Martin & Wood—it had elements of soul jazz in it, but it was more avant-garde than danceable. Two years later, with her next EP, she moved things a little closer toward soul jazz—but the arrangements were definitely a work in progress.

In 2020, she issued two EPs. "Um Yang" featured lengthy unstructured passages of free jazz, interspersed with gorgeous bits of funk and soul. But it was "Rain Dance" that really set the table for her debut LP, with its deep plush soul, thick-ply arrangements, and virtuosic playing.

Yellow starts off with the mellow "Mercury," which only slowly builds to its percolating groove. Thackray narrates a poetic voiceover as the song outros and fades into "Say Something," which opens with light comping on organ before her overtracked vocal slides into a Philly soul groove like something out of a lost MFSB session.

"About That" is a bit of a throwback to the free jazz of "Um Yang"—but it actually serves more as palate cleanser than jarring break in the flow. Because the very next track, "Venus," is the purest bit of 1990s vintage acid jazz here—think Brooklyn Funk Essentials or the Brand New Heavies.

"Green Funk" is right out of the Clinton playbook—hinting at a sweet, radio-friendly, hook-laden single, but always pulling back just a bit, teasing the listeners' ears with gorgeous harmonies that then run up against a bit of dissonance.

Soul jazz roots illuminate tracks like "Third Eye" and "Sun," while "May There Be Peace" is an interesting interpretation of a religious chant. "Golden Green" recalls late 1960s psychedelic pop, and "Rahu Ketu" and "Our People" could be lost tracks from Bobby Womack and J.J. Johnson's seminal soundtrack to "Across 110th Street."

The title tracks sounds like a secular take on gospel music, filtered through David Murray. The album closes out with a reprise of the opening track, "Mercury in Retrograde"—with its swirling colors, sampled vocals, and underlying groove providing a solid coda to this intriguing, rewarding debut from an artist who seems likely to be making some very interesting music for the foreseeable future.

Track Listing

Mercury; Say Something; About That; Venus; Green Funk; Third Eye; May There Be Peace; Sun; Golden Green; Spectre; Rahu & Ketu; Yellow; Our People; Mercury (In Retrograde)

Personnel

Emma-Jean Thackray: multi-instrumentalist; Dougal Taylor: drums; Lyle Barton: keyboards; Ben Kelly: sousaphone.

Album information

Title: Yellow | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Movementt Records

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