[Self-released; May 8]
When the Durham jazz quintet DreamRoot named their debut album Phases, they couldn’t have imagined that, by the time they released it in May, the word would connote the grisly false choice between health and economics that elected leaders and oligarchs have foisted upon us.
That connotation couldn’t be more different from the one they intended, which is about holistic, groove-based healing. According to the liner notes, “phases” imply constant forward motion and evolution, the love of the journey, and other feel-good rhetoric.
To be honest, this kind of language usually triggers the klaxons on my BS detector, predicting a musical mush that goes nowhere in particular. But this record doesn’t do that.
Bassist Ittai Korman, drummer Theous Terryel Jones, keyboardist Joe MacPhail, trumpeter Lynn Grissett—who won a Grammy in Prince’s New Power Generation—and saxophonist/flutist/vocalist Serena Wiley play soul-inflected jazz that wouldn’t be out of place on a major stage the Art of the Cool Festival or on any given night at Beyu Caffe. They represent one of the distinctive strains of the Durham jazz scene, melding R&B forms with modern jazz solos that all fit nicely into the length of a longish pop song.
Their melodies are hummable, and their solos are built around restraint with that melodic material. See, for instance, Grissett’s nicely understated solo in “Sundance,” which swirls outward from a ‘70s TV-theme melody. Clearly, they can also do more traditional jazz soloing, as they show on the more reaching moments of “Phase Is.”
Roughly half of the tracks feature Wiley reciting poetry and Kerisha Roi singing, addressing concepts of healing alongside a healthy dose of romance. In “Stridin,” they trade off a mission statement of sorts over a snapping midtempo groove in the style of Lauryn Hill: “We need / A little more wholeness / Love, strength, and balance / Are you up for the challenge?”
The vibe is relentlessly positive, and there’s definitely stuff here that toes the line of cheesiness. But there is something about DreamRoot’s earnestness—and the smart choice to make the record sound clean but not too slick—that makes it work.
If you want jazz that breathes with the rage of the times, listen to Who Sent You?, the latest Irreversible Entanglements album. If you want something more soothing as North Carolina blindly barges into phase 2 of reopening while setting new daily highs for COVID-19 cases, these Phases might help.
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