Los Angeles, California native, vocalist, pianist, and guitarist Raya Yarbrough makes her debut with an eponymously titled disc on Telarc. The reviews of her West Coast appearances have emphasized her genre-blending abilities. The Los Angeles Times, for example, called her voice, "a pliable, versatile instrument, an effective vehicle for a musical expression that ranges freely from pop-style ballad to surprisingly effective scat singing."
The music on this CD reaffirms her ability to cross a variety of styles. "Dreamer’s Ball" begins with gospel-inflected sentiments before sweetly turning into a quasi-1940s light and slow swing. Backed by an overdubbed vocal chorus, Yarbrough carefully navigates the terrain between too much inflection and underdone sentimentality perfectly. She finds the middle ground, and the choice is faultless.
There is a strong blues feel to both "Lord Knows I Would" and "You’re So Bad For Me." Closer to Bonnie Raitt than jazz, on these selections she digs into the lyrics with a jewel-encrusted hand-trowel; always careful to bring out their hidden meaning without pushing the firmament of the rhythm section too far out of kilter.
"Sorrow’s Eyes" is especially interesting. Her many long glissandos, handled with the utmost of care, fit perfectly against the minimalistic background. The self-penned tune shows Yarbrough has the makings of solid songwriter; while only time will tell, this is an illustration of a fine beginning.
There is nothing popish at all about this disc. Throughout Yarbrough, who did all but one of the musical arrangements, puts her voice into the most nominal of settings. While there is the backing of a quartet, along with selected guest artists, the overall tone is one of open spaces with her solo voice backed by the barest and sparest of accompaniment. Even when horns enter the picture, as on "Mood Indigo," the effect is still one of her voice being front and center with almost no supplement.
Such arranging choices serve her well. Her light and airy voice alone is able to capture the mood, with the backgrounds working to support and not bury or overwhelm the proceedings. The instrumental understatements wouldn’t work well with many vocalists, but they do here; think Sathima Bea Benjamin and you’ll have a rough idea of the flavor found throughout. It will be interesting to follow Yarbrough’s career because this is an auspicious start.