A band manager of my acquaintance used to regularly warn his acts against “flutes and bongos.” And he was mostly right. When modern musicians — especially British musicians — start affecting the signifiers of conscious 1970s soul and jazz, it tends to be just that: affectation. Even Tru Thoughts, one of the finest jazz/funk/hip-hop labels in the U.K., has had its misfires on this front, bands and records that may brim over with virtuosity and good vibes, but fail to match to the heart, guts and, well, soul of their inspirations.
In fact, even Will “Quantic” Holland, Tru Thoughts’s star producer/bandleader, has veered into pastiche in the past. Not here, though; not by a long chalk, even though flutes and bongos abound. Alice Russell has previously voiced many of Quantic’s finest moments in England, and in these sessions recorded in Holland’s adopted home of Cali, Colombia, over a couple of visits by Russell between 2007 and 2011, it’s clear that absence had made the heart grow even fonder.
Russell’s voice remains formidable, but it’s her song-writing that comprises the core of this record. The arrangements and production meticulously recreate the feel of Minnie Ripperton and Rotary Connection, or vintage Colombian cumbia, but they are backdrops for the songs with a life all their own, rather than knowing retro nods. There are great stylistic twists, too: “Boogaloo 33″ reminds us just how much mambo there was in classic rock ‘n’ roll, and the opener “Look Around the Corner” delivers the same liquid-sunshine string arrangements and grooves of Nuyorican soul. Through all of this, Russell is Quantic’s anchor, singing with her characteristic blend of toughness and smoothness, and investing these impeccably written songs with emotional life.