Fiery String Sistas stir up classical jazz in original collection
The most surprising part of Firey String Sistas’ Dec. 15, 2016 album, That’s What She Said…, is the depth of the diverse performances, especially the instrumentals.
With a cellist and violinist in the group, that depth is a given. Nioka Workman heads up Firey String Sistas on cello, percussion, and vocals. She’s with Marlene Rice, who plays violin and percussion, as well as sings. Pianist Mala Waldron also sings and provides percussive relief, with drummer Karina Colis and acoustic bassist Melissa Slocum.
These ladies — some of them boasting an impressive jazz lineage to John Coltrane and Billie Holiday — enjoy a nice history together, dating back to 2011. This is their first album, featuring an impressive straight-ahead and classical vibe.
Much of the original music relies on the natural, balanced, circular rhythm of friends gathering to share, not take over the conversation.
Everyone’s a star in her own right, yet everyone’s a part of the greater whole. There isn’t the jockeying of position or survival of the fittest attitude usually found in jazz albums by men with a defensive need to prove their worth. These women play with confidence in themselves, and more impressively, in one another.
They do take their time to draw out natural conclusions, resulting in quite lengthy scatting sessions (“Castle In The Sky” from Waldron), almost too lengthy, distilled solo conflagrations (“Ellie,” also by the pianist), and an almost bemused reflection during play overall.
The vocal numbers don’t quite stand up to the instrumentals, although the conversational opening between two of the Sistas — “Can I just get a little bit?” — in Rice’s “T’Ainchy Blues” opens up the fourth wall, letting the listener in and revealing the fun camaraderie in the ensemble.
“T’Ainchy Blues” gives bassist Slocum plenty of meat, as she takes up where the conversation leaves off. Then, Rice on what sounds like a bendable violin, bows the anticipatory sounding bell of a meal in progress. Her strikes, along with the rhythm section’s jumpy, dangling dazzling shadow, elevate this tune into a quirky, well-played affair.
Waldron and Colis set down strong jazz roots on “Miss Lady” (Slocum), as Rice zips in and out on scratchy, sketchy violin, expanding the vocabulary — blurring the stylistic lines well outside the genre before Workman bottoms up and out on her cello.
The bass solos, rounded out by metallic strings and the flickering of sticks above the atmosphere, cut through the tension like a hot knife through butter. Slocum’s composition is one of the best on the album, pushing the definition of jazz without going too crazy.
Colis wrote “Adversidad,” another outstanding track. Waldron shines in her static, staccato piano pieces, skipping over a succulent, clapping rhythm — between military precision and a Russian ballet — in the beginning stages of blossoming. If that’s Rice on violin, she introduces a Beethoven-like intensity, ushering jazz into a different, classical world.
Waldron’s “Ellie” runs on an average scat and a kind of bossa-nova Jobim throwback — until the instrumental interplays raise the game considerably, notably between pianist and drummer. Extraneous, Vegas-y percussive finishes distract from the heart of this textured thrill piece, though.
That’s What She Said… makes for a solid introduction to the Firey String Sistas! But, other than a handful of surprising, dense classical-jazz outcroppings, not much more than that.