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Arts Desk
Every week on the air there's a special focus on one particular jazz album. Check them all out here!

Jazz Album Of The Week: Understated Power and Nuance on Lauren Henderson’s 'Musa'

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These days, it seems every musician is compelled to tout their new album as “their most personal yet.” They’re compelled to not just tell the truth, but to tell “their” truth. Whether listeners care, though, really depends on whether or not the music is good. And, on vocalist Lauren Henderson’s latest, Musa, the music happens to be very, very good. So the story of what inspired that music gets better and better with each listen.

The reason the music’s so good has a lot to do with pianist Sullivan Fortner. He and Henderson, longtime compatriots, worked together in arranging all 11 tunes here, a mixture of bilingual originals and standards artfully rubbed with a piquant blend of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean spices. The arrangements reflect Henderson’s multi-ethnic background—she’s got roots in Panama’s African diaspora as well as those that spread throughout the Caribbean. But the genius of the arrangements is that they highlight her strengths as a vocalist.

As Henderson notes herself in the album’s press release, she’s not a belter; she’s often her alluring best just a couple notches north of musical whisper. Fortner’s got it in him to be a belter—and he shows it at times, in his own way, as do Eric Wheeler (bass) and Joe Dyson (drums). But it’s the core group’s dynamic pliability, their feel for how best to showcase Henderson’s big-time talent, that makes this one successful.

Their take on Valerie Parks Brown’s “Forget Me” illustrates perfectly. Fortner and Wheeler noodle a playful yet tension-building overture that’s a masterclass for how to coax a star vocalist onstage. It’s an invitation Henderson cannot turn down; she’s got a story to tell. Lest you don’t initially believe her side of the story, Marquis Hill’s muted trumpet is employed to underscore Henderson’s earnestness in this otherwise too-cool game of romantic cat and mouse.

While representative of the group dynamic, this one, without discernible Latin influence, is among the outliers here; its companions in this sense are a languid, ultimately forgettable take on Richard Rogers’ “The Sweetest Sounds,” and a much more inspired interpretation of “Wild is the Wind.”

The latter’s worth a listen.

It’s not achingly desperate or knowingly hopeless like Nina Simone’s. Henderson pleads but also smirks and even smiles in spots, as if she knows something the object of her affections does not. Enjoy the compare and contrast; it’s a great example of how a tune can be effectively interpreted in two totally different ways.

Compare to the Henderson original “La Marejada,” where both music and lyrics are in Spanish. The overdubbed vocal harmonies, which sometimes come off as hokey and overproduced, are, for reasons I can’t even articulate, appropriate—even nice—in this context. Maybe it’s the entrancing Flamenco-style acoustic guitar of Paco Soto; his presence is garnish with consequence, style full of substance.

Soto’s back, along with percussionist Sabú Porrina, on the Spanish-language title track, which presents as an ode to the intoxicating, combustible, and inevitable mixture of music and attraction.

Hitting the mark dead center is Wheeler, who’s ceded some extended time out front. Like rewarding a defensive-minded center in basketball with an easy transition lay-up, it’s always good practice to keep your bass player happy by giving him some shine. That’s Jazz Quartet Organizational Psychology 101.

“Leeward,” a hymn to the enduring nature of love, is the only original tune here written with English lyrics. This time, I have mixed feelings about the overdubbed harmonies. On one hand, they feel needlessly slick, an effort to add depth and/or cover for a voice that doesn’t need the extra texture or amplification. Yet, with the R&B feel of the tune, it’s neither jarring nor aesthetically incongruent. It works—yet feels removed from the album’s prevailing sensibility.

“Luz,” meanwhile, with its palpable chemistry between Fortner and Henderson, resides much closer to the album’s reason for being, as I understand it. As does a reading of Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You” that recontextualizes the standard by combining the breeziness of a bossa foreground with darker, discordant undertones of ambivalence. Adding subtext to a piece that’s rarely presented with such depth makes Henderson more than just a gifted vocalist; it makes her a gifted stylist, too. Both elements together, working in concert, are what makes a jazz singer.

So while she may speak softly, on Musa, Henderson—with boundless idiomatic versatility and impeccable control and intonation in the lower registers—proves herself a force.