Review of the S.E.Charles Quartet’s Debut Recording “Red”

Russ Musto[Staff writer and NY@Night columnist for The New York City Jazz Record (formerly AllAboutJazz-NewYork) and contributing writer for Downbeat and Jazz Times]

Sarah Elizabeth Charles stands out as a new breed of jazz vocalist – deeply rooted in the jazz tradition, well educated in the music’s methods and highly motivated to make her very own mark in it. Charles, who grew up in Springfield, Mass, singing hymns in church, studying classical piano and attending the city’s esteemed Community Music School developed a preteen interest in jazz when initially exposed to it by her first vocal instructor, Montenia Shider. In subsequent years she immersed herself in interpreting the Great American Songbook, developing her technique with further studies at Vermont Jazz Center’s Summer Program (where she was mentored by Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton) and at Dr. Billy Taylor’s “Jazz In July” at UMASS Amherst.

Charles furthered her musical education soaking up music around the rich southern New England jazz scenes, listening to visiting luminaries, as well as many top flight local artists. She began her professional career playing around the Western MA area with the Community Music School of Springfield’s Charles Majid Greenlee Scholarship Jazz Ensemble directed by former Randy Weston bassist, Detroit native, Vishnu Wood. Soon she was singing throughout the region with her own groups, receiving much acclaim for her distinctive interpretations of the jazz vocal repertoire, eventually recording two well received standards albums, Angel Eyes and Live at the Majestic Theater that marked her as a singer well on her way to making a name for herself.

Migrating to New York for studies at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music’s renowned Fine Arts program further opened Charles’ mind and ears. In the city she befriended many of the other talented young musicians who had come there to expand their jazz horizons. She notes, “I started getting more exposure to different styles of music, not only jazz, but a variety of styles, and a variety of approaches to jazz and what jazz is. This let me revisit some of the motifs and ideas that I had written maybe 2 or 3 years prior to moving to New York. I explored the older material a bit more in addition to writing new material. Basically, at this time, I started to trust my ear more and began to feel free to explore what my sound would be.”

The expansive sound of Sarah Elizabeth Charles today begins to come to light on her most recent recording Red. The date, featuring her working band, the S. E. Charles Quartet, with Jesse Elder on acoustic and Fender Rhodes piano, Burniss Earl Travis II on bass and John Davis on drums, is daringly different from her earlier recordings and most of what else is out there now. Split evenly between three of her original compositions and her own distinctive arrangements of three more songs from the jazz/world music songbook, the disc reveals one of the most original voices in jazz today.

Red opens with the date’s title track, an organically developed ethereal exploration by the band beginning with a softly strummed electric bass solo that evolves into a subtly pulsing beat over which Charles’ crystalline voice and impeccable phrasing floats in a most appealing tone, complemented by Elder’s spacious electric piano accompaniment with Davis’s shimmering cymbals. Seamlessly shifting to a thicker, more bluesy sound the singer’s range is further enhanced through tasteful overdubbing, creating a heavenly choir like effect that grows in intensity with Davis’s drumming pushing the dynamic level upwards until the music fades away blissfully. (The between takes interlude featuring the group chatting jocularly that follows offers further substantiation of the band’s tightness that is so evident in the music.)

The depth of Charles’s originality is clearly demonstrated on her radically different arrangement of the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic “How Insensitive,” which eschews the piece’s traditional delicate bossa nova character, replacing it with a rocking, almost angry tone. Developed in guitarist Rory Stuart’s Advanced Rhythm class at The New School as part of an assignment ‘”to take a standard and just rip it apart” Charles displays a boldly innovative approach to interpretation, combining her own wordless vocal vamp and Norman Gimbel’s English lyric with alternating 7/8 and 9/8 meters making the song completely her own.

The Charles song “Perspective” is a narrative based on personal experience. The piece begins with a jazzy “All Blues” inspired section over which she sings “Don’t have time to sit around and wait for you. /We’d be fine, if you weren’t so caught up in yourself.../ So I let you go away. Was there something else I could do? / What did you do then? / Sat around so I moved on. / What do you have to say to change my mind? / Now you’re quiet that’s what I thought / Can’t deal with me so I just dropped you from
my life.” It then moves into a funky James Brown type flavor, propelled by John Davis’s powerful freewheeling drums, reflecting a change in attitude. The ability to create lyrics from occurrences in her life is an expanding development in Charles’s songwriting that has greatly enhanced the originality of her music.

“Wongolo Wale” reflects the singer’s exploration of the Caribbean aspect of her half Haitian, half French Canadian background. The traditional folk song from Haiti is treated here to a new arrangement by Charles that has Elder and Travis stretching out on the Fender Rhodes and electric bass, respectively. Charles’s recital of the French Creole lyric is emotional in tone, appropriate to the song’s words, which as she explains, “address the life changes that West African people were experiencing when being taken from their home countries to Haiti as slaves. The lyrics of the song translate into the reality that these people were being forced to leave and therefore asking the question of whether their countries and lives would ever be the same again. Wongolo Wale means, ‘He is going away’.”

The final Charles original on the date, “Easy,” is another song inspired by the singer’s personal experience. A ”Day In The Life” type narrative, it’s divided into two separate sections. The first part has the composer opening with a wordless vocal section (somewhat Native American in tone) and then repetitively singing the phrase “Wasn’t Easy”, all over Elder’s rumbling rubato piano. Part Two – “Easy” – is plaintive narrative detailing the sorrow surrounding a romantic breakup, an eventual return to normalcy and a final recognition of the lessons learned through the process. Sung in an honest, passionate tone it ends in a blissfully floating ambient vocal duet by Charles and Travis.

The closing “Mesi Bondye” is a well known song from Haiti, popularized in the U.S. by Harry Belafonte. Charles’ arrangement of the Frantz Casseus composition opens with her singing the English translation of the Creole lyric over Davis’s African spirited drums and Travis’s bass ostinato. “I sing the English lyric (Thank you God for ending our misery/Thank you God for all that nature brings/The rain that falls, the corn that grows, now we can all eat./And now we can dance the congo, now we can dance pietro/Now we can dance/Thank you God for ending all the misery for us.) first, which is not usually done, but I felt that it was important for people to understand the message,” she declares. She then settles into the Creole lyric with the original melody arranged in a traditional jazz flavored manner that has the trio swinging hard, while Charles wails with powerful emotion.

The ability to sing with skilled virtuosity while expressing a wide range of emotions with honesty and passion is the hallmark of Sarah Elizabeth Charles’ growing talent. As master pianist George Cables, a frequent Charles collaborator notes, “Sarah Elizabeth Charles is very much her own person. She seems to come from inside the music and looks for an intimate musical relationship with each and all of the instruments on the stage. In collaborating with Sarah, whether it's her project or mine, she's creative and flexible.” Cables’ astute assessment of Charles’s prodigious talent is clearly evident on “Red,” a record that signals the emergence of a great new vocal talent and forecasts much more magnificent music to come.