By Dennis Cook
This is a dance - alive with hips and black lashes and a fluttering pulse. Jessica leads, a saxophone in her right hand and a mic in the other. The music undulates - elegant, physical, fascinating - taking its steps from Lady Lurie. People speak of an artist finding their voice, and this varied, confident new set from Jessica Lurie has her speaking in tongues, all of them pleasing to the ear.
Lurie (alto and tenor sax, flute, voice, effects) leads a core band comprised of Nels Cline (guitar), Todd Sickafoose (contrabass), and Scott Amendola (drums, effects) through the strongest, most musical compositions of her career. There’s an undeniable Latin undercurrent, but it's constantly flavored with Middle Eastern or down south spicing. Pieces like “The Place That You Come From” spark the same bright colors as a French musical like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. One catches the Brazillica of Stan Getz but with a fluttery heartbeat and some ghostly tinkering by Amendola and Lurie’s electronics. Astor Piazzolla strolls into an Italian sunset, tipping his hat to accordionist Dan Cantrell as he passes. Only at the end do you realize the crazy range you’ve covered. There’s no discontinuity. The assorted pieces fall together for a very satisfying whole.
A fresh wrinkle is Lurie singing lead vocals, a move that takes her further out from her reputation as a jazz and experimental player. Her warm voice is like fingers curled into your hair - dark and promising but always an inch away from revealing everything. Think Lucinda Williams blended with a less acrobatic Edie Brickell, with occasional flickerings of Meredith Monk and you’re close. She’s especially effective on “Mexico,” a lost avenue from Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia, “Something in the wind that wants to rip off all your skin.” That she makes that line hiss with sensuality is what makes her a terrific singer, not merely a good one.
Her saxophone and flute work throughout is rich, smart stuff that compares favorably with Joe Henderson, Gary Bartz, and other major blowers with both melodic and free chops. She can be pretty or strident, but the texture and emotional wallop always captivate. I never tire of her playing because it engages me, asks me to listen and to wander with her. 'Inviting' might be the right word.
Cline opens a dark blue vein on “Up From The Bottom of the Well,” creating a sizzling Crossroads howl that chases after Lurie’s lowdown singing with teeth bared. Amendola hypnotizes on the Turkish delight of “Patzer,” which has some wonderfully breathy flute that would warm Roland Kirk’s blind, wild heart. The band creates an atmosphere like a casbah at high noon, Sickafoose’s bass wending its way through tightly crowded stalls, freshly dyed robes swaying with his passing. “Black Coffee” is a torch song that engulfs you, a touch that burns with Cline’s lissome guitar leading the dance when Lurie’s undeniably sultry singing isn’t. Traditional by way of Gillian Welch, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” is interpreted here as old time Martian gospel - a wail clouded by space dust and distance, soothing but in a way that’s not fully human. Lurie’s recent stint playing circus music surfaces on “Southeastern Drive,” which takes the elephants and clowns out into the Cuban countryside, a children’s tale animated with sound and exhilarating motion.
Licorice & Smoke is life affirming. So engaged and alive is every aspect that you can’t resist joining them on the dance floor. Every musician involved is clearly touched by her work, producing some of the best work by some of the best players around today. Considerably less avant-garde than some of Lurie’s catalog, Licorice & Smoke is a showcase for her many facets and possibly the best starting place for which any new listener could hope.
JamBase | East Bay
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