Rise Above the latest release from Jacques Schwarz-Bart featuring the gifted Stephanie McKay is a collection of soulful and emotional compositions that range from spoken word to Afro-Cuban bop jazz. This CD is a success in my mind because it presents the artistry of Schwarz-Bart in all its various forms and winds up being downright entertaining!
The opening cut "Feels So Free" sets the tone for the CD with McKay's soulful and delicious vocals riding out front of the funky groove. The transition from English to French language in the lyrics makes the song even more romantic and soulful. I credit Jacques for kicking off on this note. It sets you up for an entertaining listening experience. The transition to "Rise Above," a composition created the day after the events of September 11th, stays in the vein of soulful reflection, but has an uplifting message. Schwarz-Bart conveys the sadness and hopefulness in the gentle rendering of the lyrics, but expresses his real emotion in the poignant sax solo.
The diversity of the themes is further highlighted with the track "Forget-Regret." Opening with spoken word poetry by Schwarz-Bart, the song quickly takes that soul-funk groove to another level with the vocals of McKay up front, and Schwarz-Bart doing backup vocals. It is a loving dialogue between two artists who share more than a song.
Just when you are wondering where Schwarz-Bart's sax chops have gone, you roll into "Busted." What I like about this track is that it has all the soulfulness of the previous songs, but now the musician delivers the message with the saxophone. Schwarz-Bart has been working his craft in good company. Having studied at Berklee in Boston, he went on to work with some of the better known artists in the category of "Young Lions" including Joshua Redman and Roy Hargrove. But the sound of Schwarz-Bart is that of another influence, soul. Touring with D'angelo and Me’shell N’degeocello he develops a style that is a soulful jazz that as a sax player he is able to squeeze the essence of song from deep within himself. The best example of this on the CD is the exchange between himself and Mckay (did I mention that Stephanie is Jacques' wife!) on "Rainbow". This intimate exchange sums up the dynamic between the two, and the musician and his craft. Multi-colored, expressing a wide range of backgrounds, influences, dimensions, and emotions!
McKay expresses another of Schwarz-Bart's compositions in perfect form on the track "I Don't Know". This composition, dedicated to the shy lover is the epitome of the expressive nature of Schwarz-Bart's lyricism. These are simple words with such deep meaning and impact on the relationship. The song is layered with a simple groove, soulful sax riffs, and the luscious voice of McKay. Her dynamics and range of emotion are the reason this CD is entertaining. You find yourself listening over and over!
"Abyss" is a cut where Jacques himself spreads out a bit and shows his competence on his own instrument. This track features Schwarz-Bart in a persistent solo over the changes and melody that account for the "jazz" in the jazz-soul styling I assigned to this CD. This is listening jazz without becoming 'smooth' jazz. If you like soul and good R&B music but want it with a jazz flavor, you will love this CD. If you are a hard-core jazz fan who sometimes just wants to sit and listen and not have to think, you will love this CD. If you are looking for technical and extravagant solos over abstract changes, you might love this CD!
"That Girl Steph," written about his wife, is a song that while I have used the word an awful lot in this review, is a soulful track. But that is the theme of this CD, soulful jazz with world music tendencies, sharing Schwarz-Bart's diversity of life experience and musical influence. What is apropos is that if features one of his most important inspirations, Stephanie McKay! I can only conclude after listening more times than I should to one CD I am reviewing, that this was a labor of love. Love of his craft, love of his adopted city, love of his people, love of his heritage and, of course, love of this woman and her gift!
Which brings me to the last track "Home." A fitting way to wind up this CD. I compliment Jacques on his selection of tracks and the order. The CD opens with McKay’s vocals and winds up with the two of them. Very emotional wrap-up...the combination of voice and saxophones is well thought out and executed to give a fuller expression of the message.
I was not familiar with Schwarz-Bart's solo work, nor was I aware of Stephanie Mckay's wonderful voice and style. But after this CD I am going to be keeping track of their work. Check it out; it is a sweet listening experience, and downright Soulful!!!