“I’m always listening to these guys having a conversation. When you add vocals, you have to make the words count. It has to be about something — love, loss, pain, sorrow, or joy.”
Listening to Kenyan-born, Boston vocalist Gabrielle Agachiko is like watching theater in a fine arts jazz club. All the elements are there in her debut jazz album, Yes! — out on Accurate Records since July 9, 2013.
When she set her sights on jazz, Agachiko took fellow rocker, Either/Orchestra’s Russ Gershon (Decoders, Bourbon Princess) by surprise. He knew the Juilliard grad from the rock, pop, and theater scene for two decades. Back in the 1990s, she almost made her fortune with Atom Said, a major rock band thisclose to signing with Polygram London (alas, David Bowie plucked guitarist/music director Reeves Gabrels for Tin Machine, cutting short that dream).
After a hiatus that lasted for a few years, Agachiko put together her own band, covering Nina Simone extremely well. Gershon was taken aback by her distinctive, fresh jazz presence. “She’s not a jazz singer in the daughters-of-Ella mainstream,” he said. “She wasn’t singing the same 50 tunes as so many jazz vocalists. She’s not working out of the same playbook.”
She came to Gershon wanting to record a distinctive jazz album full of horns and her surprising sweet spots, covering the music of Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln, as well as some other familiar and unfamiliar standards all her own. As the album’s tenor saxophonist and arranger for most of the 11 tracks, Gershon couldn’t say enough about his leading lady. “Gabrielle holds a universe of sound in her voice. It’s so rich and subtle and controlled. Her voice will just do anything, and she knows a gazillion songs,” he remarked. “As an arranger who’s very concerned with timbre, voicings, and the emotional content of intervals, I appreciate that she hears it all and can wrap around a chord sequence. It’s very different from writing for a blues shouter who wants a lot of punch and Basie flourishes.”
Fortified by a strong theater background, Agachiko turned it around on the new jazz material she sought to breathe fresh life into. She also drew on her experience in Paris, subbing for Irene Aebi in saxophonist Steve Lacy’s band, singing standards and — at his prodding — trying a little improv while she was at it. At the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, instructor William Esper indirectly gave her the extra push to help her with the intimidation factor of jazz improv. “He said ‘Actors don’t act, they react.’ That’s helped me out a lot. I want to be part of the band. I don’t scat or do a lot of vocal gymnastics. When I sing a song you walk away knowing what the melody is.”
Agachiko not only knows how to embrace the melody as a vocalist, actress, and songwriter, she does it without sacrificing the musicians. “I’m always listening to these guys having a conversation. When you add vocals, you have to make the words count. It has to be about something — love, loss, pain, sorrow, or joy.”
The respect Agachiko holds for jazz is great. The amount of jazz verve she puts into each song selection is no small feat. It took her ages before she felt ready enough to tackle this great, American music. She’s loved these jazz songs and this jazz style since she was in her 20s, “for their emotional depth and musical complexity. However, at 20-something, I didn’t feel I had the life experience needed to truly convey the meaning. Like any important conversation, jazz must be engaged in at length in order to be well understood. Now, it seems the conversation of life has enabled me to fill these songs with what they deserve.”
She contains her lyrical prowess carefully, cleverly, and creatively to get her points across, while embracing the music. Her recording personnel includes some fellow Northeast powerhouses — Ken Field on flute (Revolutionary Snake Ensemble), bassist Blake Newman (Lizard Lounge poetry band), and of course, tenor saxophonist Russ Gershon, who earned a Grammy nomination for his previous arrangements — as well as trumpeter Scott Getchell, guitarist Sam Davis, and drummer Phil Neighbors.
Right away, Agachiko proves she belongs in jazz with the soft, sultry stroke of “Blue Winter.” She made sure her words matched the slow burn of Neighbors’ music and Gershon’s subtle arrangement. The roller coaster tempo of the song is evenly matched by her storytelling actor’s narrative, playing the role of a lovesick, lovelorn martyr trying to resist one more seduction. Nobody could parse this sorry spiral, “Yes, I would rather have the snow, baby it’s a discomfort, I already know, not the warmth of a true love, but only blue winter from above,” with as delicious a hesitation. Gershon’s saxophone and Davis’ guitar taunt sweet serenity in the madness, playing their roles as the attractive addiction to the hilt.
In the wonderfully original tempest, “Words,” Agachiko rattles her adroit saber at the Tea Party with sarcastic undertones in a light, lively Latin groove. She puts all these politically heavy terms inside a sweetly swaying, mindless dance confection, twisting the knife even more. Ebonics, impeaching the President, questioning his origins, yes, Hawaii is a state — all done in a humorous light. The insulting stupidity of “It’s only words, communication… ebonics was bad enough, I tried to learn all that stuff, like foshizzle my nizzle, don’t holler at me, I’m a lady speak gently baby, it’s only words, but they’ll expose you, it’s how we really know what’s deep in your heart,” set to a lovely Jobim beat and a circular horn solo, get the job done better than hammering a heavy-set after-school message in dire, angry tones.
One of the most spacious standards for any jazz vocalist to fill with her own special sauce — a test, really — is the ultimate torch song, Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell For You.” Perhaps the ultimate test of a femme fatale vocalist, this song is a strong measure of her soul’s depth and courage. Just how much can she open up and turn a heartless rejection around, simply by shaking this song to its core? No problem for Agachiko and her saxophonist. Instead of sinking into the minor modalities of despair, like every woman coming and going trying to make her mark, Agachiko spares us the hand-wringing histrionics and floats over sentiment. She turns this song around from the jilted to the jilter, as if she’s merely relaying a momentary thing but she’ll soon get over it, will he? Halfway through the song, here comes Newman on bass and Gershon on his tenor sax, weaving their magic spells of memory and loss, making any woman want to live in those solos forever.
Similar to the political “Words,” Agachiko continues her seamless conscience beat to “When The Water Is Gone.” She wrote the lyrics about the world’s dwindling water supply to Cara Smith’s music, again arranged by Gershon in funky hues. Agachiko matches her musical Hair meets Jesus Christ Superstar vocals to the floaty funk of flute and B3 (hello, Tim West!) of the hippie ’60s, with serious lyrics buried underneath mesmerizing but pleasant music. A spoonful of sugar, baby.
On #10, “Unlovable” becomes very lovable in the spare falling of quiet sorrow between her lyrics and voice, and Newman’s reflective bass. As Agachiko stretches and bends, so does Newman in one of the few jazz standards to feature the bass as a grounding, undulating movement all on its own. Then, the horns creep in, putting the final lie to the world’s echoed assumption that anything is unlovable about the song’s forlorn mistress.
If Gabrielle Agachiko can do this much on her first jazz album, imagine the sequel.