Editor’s note: This is the last of four album reviews that were published over the course of two weeks, spotlighting new releases from some of our favorite D.C. jazz musicians. Check out all four here.
by Giovanni Russonello
If you’ve seen Lydia Lewis perform, it was probably as an accompanist. The Maryland drummer is eminently comfortable in the role, a flexible and frequent sidewoman who values a deep pocket above all else and only barrels to the fore when the moment is just right. That, of course, makes her punctilious solos all the more powerful when they do arrive.
And on her debut album, Cosmic Collisions, Lewis finds a lot of strength in simply supporting her ensemble. Four tracks are dedicated entirely to solos and duets with fellow drummer Alphonso Young, but they’re not the album’s highlights; those come on the tracks where she proves herself to be an open-minded, amenable leader, at the helm of a distinctly modern combo.
Lewis assembled an all-star cast: vocalist Lena Seikaly, tenor saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed, pianist Bobby Jasinski, percussionist Eduardo Muniz and, most importantly, the rock-solid bassist Kris Funn, her groove accomplice.
Most of the band members contribute pieces to the 13-track record, which features only originals; if this CD were a work of nonfiction, it would be a well-edited collection of essays, not a polemic written from one woman’s point of view. What would it say? Probably something about the merits of the eclectic, and of dashing whatever notion you might have had about subgenres and stylistic purity.
Lydia Lewis, “Estrela Nova”
Seikaly wordlessly doubles Balbed’s melodies on the Latin-bop “Brief Encounter,” composed by the saxophonist himself, and on Jasinski’s slowly waltzing “Eclipse,” among others. The pair’s tight unison lines call up the chemistry of Flora Purim and Joe Farrell on Chick Corea and Return to Forever’s Light as a Feather, a founding text of jazz fusion. That was an album that threw bebop, Brazilian jazz and psychedelic rock into the same arena.
Funn’s only composition (and his first ever to be recorded and formally released), the propulsive and streetwise “Stop Loss,” bounces with a self-affirming swagger, much like the bassist’s playing. It recalls Joshua Redman’s strain of songwriting after he turned away from hard-bop in the mid-1990s and found Freedom in the Groove, an album that, like Light as a Feather, was an important signpost on history’s road away from strict traditionalism. (Balbed’s playing on “Stop Loss,” clear and bristling, sliding between careful containment and fervid release, also reflects Redman’s influence.)
Seikaly’s two tunes, “What Was I Supposed to Do?” and “Written in the Stars,” offer a sort of return to traditionalism; they are, if you couldn’t tell by the names, written in a prototypically jazz standard-esque style. The singer’s own smoothness and the steadfastness of Lewis’ rhythm section keep the tunes feeling fresh, and provide their personality. The bandleader’s compositions, “Estrela Nova” and “Soul En Fuego,” are mathematical constructions, and challenging showcases for the band members’ dexterity.
The drum duets, “Cosmic Collision” Nos. 1 through 4, give the album’s narrative a sensible continuity, but Lewis and Young don’t always lock in. Their individual snare drums too often act as twin jump ropes, getting snared by the other’s whip.
Cosmic Collisions finds a young drummer stepping out of the shadows as the leader of an accomplished band, nurturing the talents of each member in service of a diverse whole.