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Album Review: Maria Neckam's 'Unison

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Maria Neckam Unison
Courtesy of Sunnyside Records
Vocalist Maria Neckam’s 2012 release, Unison, on Sunnyside Records, commits deeply to energetic, intricate, and technically polished music, but makes an equal commitment to the sensitive interpretation of poetry. The record is a mixture of pieces with all music most of the lyrics by Neckam, with some settings of poetry by the 14th century Persian mystic Hafez, and the 20th Century poets Rainier Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda, all in English translation.

Neckam was born in Austria and studied in the Netherlands, but sees herself more as a cosmopolitan world citizen who calls Brooklyn, New York her home. This globetrotting perspective is easily heard in the music, but Neckam never resorts to mere surface-level references of any one of these sounds, opting instead to find her own music that treats her background as a starting point, not a destination.

Neckam is also deeply aware of the poetry. Many of her lyrics, like the opening song “I Miss You” and “Your Kindness” focus on a speaker’s close relationships with others that may or may not be romantic. An interesting juxtaposition is her use of Hafez’s poem “Where Do You Think You Will Be?” which finds the speaker sitting on top of a mountain where his thoughts are on his relationship with god as manifested through the sunlight and the clouds. Putting the two together, the divine and worldly, lends each the qualities of the other. This is exactly the point of Hafez’s poetry, where he asks “Where do you think you will be/ when god reveals himself/ inside of you?” in an effort to make the divine seem much more personal, much more attainable. Neckam’s poetry dealing with everyday relationships takes on a more mystic character, especially in her piece “One Day’s” promise that there is “hope in the eyes of a stranger.” Neckam also draws inspiration from the rhythm and cadence of speech, with her melody on “The Story” following the twistings and turnings of the words, rather than fitting them to metered time.

Neckam is also a singer committed to sound. Her voice has a light quality with a memorable shading of tone in the extreme registers lithe delivery of far-ranging vocal lines. The wordless melodies in “January 2011” and “Unison” add a nice contrast to the lyrics, and her ability to blend with instrumentalists is an asset. Neckam the composer proves herself beyond a doubt, but in some instances Neckam the improvisor is not as strong. In her improvisation on “Your Kindness” and elsewhere, Neckam’s wordless improvisations, often called “scat singing,” lack the rhythmic and intervallic vitality of her composed melodies, but this is a small complaint against what is otherwise a well delivered album. Neckam describes her music as a meeting of the styles of Björk, Stravinsky, Ani DiFranco, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, and Radiohead. Adding Theo Bleckmann and the singer/songwriter Regina Spektor to this list gives a good idea of the singer’s sound, though only hearing it first hand will do it justice.

Unison is well constructed, not only in its details, but also in its overall structure. The able band on the album features pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Colin Stranahan, with guest appearances by alto saxophonists Lars Dietrich and Will Vinson, trumpeter Kenny Warren, cellist Mariel Roberts, tenor saxophonist Samir Zarif, and pianist Glenn Zaleski. With such a long list of collaborators Neckam has created an album that is refreshingly dynamic and not just a re-creation of a live concert experience. Along with full ensemble pieces, Neckam also places her voice next to a solo cellist, a saxophone duet, and with piano and synthesizer. Her setting of Hafez’s “Where Do You Think You Will Be?” casts a spell with sublime lyricism in this hushed, spare setting. The next piece, “Unison” that features the largest ensemble yet in a rhythmically dense piece with labyrinthine counterpoint and intertwining solos from the saxophone and trumpet players, stands out even more by its contrast.

Overall, Unison is a beautiful album. The compositions are well balanced as a complete collection, the varied structure of the songs is a welcome asset, and Neckam is a compelling and assured singer whose second album comes highly recommended not only to fans of vocal jazz, but also to fans of creative jazz with an adventurous edge.

Release Date:

May 26th, 2012 on Sunnyside Records

Personnel:

  • Maria Neckam: voice
  • Aaron Parks: piano, Fender Rhodes
  • Nir Felder: guitar
  • Thomas Morgan: bass
  • Colin Stranahan: drums
  • Will Vinson: alto saxophone
  • Lars Dietrich: alto saxophone
  • Samir Zarif: tenor saxophone
  • Kenny Warren: trumpet
  • Mariel Roberts: cello
  • Glen Zaleski: piano

Track List:

  1. Miss You
  2. The Story
  3. Obsessed
  4. Where Do You Think You Will Be?
  5. Unison
  6. Unavailability
  7. Your Kindness
  8. One Day
  9. Solitude
  10. New Orleans
  11. January 2011 (Dedicated To David Kashara)
  12. I Am Waiting For My Laundry In The Sun And I Have Lost You (Laundry Song)
  13. You And I
  14. You Will Remember
  15. Half Full
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