Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bending Genres: Elizabeth Shepherd's Signal and Lily Frost's Motherless Child

Is it jazz or is it pop? In the case of Elizabeth Shepherd and Lily Frost, two gifted singers from Canada, one genre definitely informs the other. The challenge for listeners  and critics – is to dismiss the genre fencing and simply appreciate the music in and of itself. For Shepherd and Frost, whose recent releases cross-reference pop and jazz, the two have become very good at blending  and bending – the genres into music that is accessible and interesting.

The Signal (Linus) is Elizabeth Shepherd's fifth, full-length album. Originally cast as pseudo-chanteuse upon her debut, the McGill University graduate has constantly challenged everybody's notion of category. She's tread the line between straight up jazz (Start to Move, 2006) to her exceptional performance of "I Am The Walrus" on Michael Occhipini's Shine On tribute to the music of John Lennon. To some extent, her new release carries some of that musical buoyancy along with a large dose of mystery. Led by the percussive drive of John McLean, The Signal is Shepherd's funkiest release to date. The polyrhythms lead the way as Shepherd weaves her voice in between the beats. The overall sound of the album is occasionally too locked into a steady groove, but the title track breaks the pattern nicely. It's a sublime duet with vocalist Alex Samaras peppered with narration by CBC Radio host, Laurie Brown. It's the best-arranged song on the album, and arranging is a skill in itself – just consider the work of Rob McConnell or Gil Evans, two jazz legends.

The more I listen to this first-rate recording, it sounds more "of the 70s" but not the 70s. Perhaps it's Shepherd’s strategic use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the mainstay of so many jazz recordings in the 70s. [See: Bob James]. Track 5, called "Lion's Den," is pure urban funk, with a lot of edge. Kevin Turcotte's trumpet solo captures a lot of what Miles Davis was doing in the early 70s by challenging our conventional notion of sound and fusing it with a grimy, funky back beat. But the key to the success of The Signal is the fact that each track segues to the next as a suite of stories from the same block of city streets. Shepherd may not be the next great torch singer, but with The Signal, she has firmly planted herself in-between genres.

Another fine pop singer and songwriter from Toronto, is Lily Frost. Frost has had some success in pop music going back some fourteen years to an album called, Lunamarium (Nettwerk). She even released a charming Christmas/seasonal song, "Skating on a River" in late 2000. Not one to be backed into a genre or category, Frost has set about making music on her own terms in pop especially on the record, Flights of Fancy (Aporia) in 2006, but that record also strode the jazz world slightly with its cabaret flavors of Paris and the high-speed techno of New York. By 2008 she made a perfectly spirited jazz record, in mono no less, called Lily Swings (Marquis). The sound of that album captured the feel of a smoky club in Austin, Texas with great charm and humour. By 2012, Frost went for a definitive pop sound on the joyful, Do What You Love (Aporia). It's a great mix of doo-wop background vocals with songs of love and romance. She even breaks out a great version of the Pink Floyd tune “San Tropez” to close the record. Frost is clearly at home in the pop format. Which brings us to a new EP that is far removed from the urban pop sounds of which most fans are familiar.

Motherless Child (Aporia) is Frost's new release leading up to a full-length record in 2015. But this is no sampler. All six tracks are carefully arranged and performed without flare or heavy production values. She plays a slightly out-of-tune piano on the title track, the famous Negro spiritual, adorned only by organ sounds and her multi-tracked harmonies. My favourite track is a straight ahead acoustic version of "Wild Women Don't Have No Blues," written by the great Ida Cox. In some ways, Frost is straddling three genres on this record if you include blues. No matter what the category or song style, Frost’s recording is matched by her performances that are a mix of cabaret and performance art all designed to bring you into the music. You can see a video of Motherless Child on YouTube.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's currently writing a book about Frank Zappa for Backbeat Books.

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