Somi’s third album and first concert recording achieves the most satisfying balance yet of her own native roots (the jazz, blues and soul of Illinois) and those of her parents (born in Rwanda and Uganda). This meld — call it nu-African jazz-soul — succeeds in large part because the venue, personnel and live circumstance favor raw intimacy and spontaneous improvisation instead of studio polish. Consequently, Jazz Standard is worthwhile even for owners of 2009′s If the Rains Come First, where six of these 10 songs previously appeared.
The upgrade is immediately apparent; opener “Ingele” features Somi’s most visceral vocal to date, stretching from a liquid, low-register croon up into torrid crescendos amid and in-between extended solos by guitarist Liberty Ellman and pianist Toru Dodo. And on the ensuing “Wallflower Blues,” in place of the multi-tracked vocals on the studio version, Somi executes a piano-scat tandem with Dodo, whose Fender Rhodes takes on a percussive, xylophone effect.
There are distinct elements of both African pop and American blues and neo-soul, elasticized by jazz improvisation from all concerned. “Prayer to the Saint of the Brokenhearted” moves from dusky delta blues to stone-skipping phrasing in sync with Ellman’s African-oriented guitar line. “Kuzunguka” soars a bit like Flora Purim’s “500 Miles High” and then settles into a delightful contrast between floating vocals and furious beats. The two cover tunes — and the only songs not previously recorded by Somi — are also instructive. “Should’ve Been” is a tribute to Abbey Lincoln in particular and more generally to the craft of smoky jazz vocals with an intimate acoustic ensemble. And the closing “Waiting In Vain” is a hushed rendition of the already tender Bob Marley number. (Both feature well placed backup vocals by Alicia Olatuja.) Somi wants to name-check her influences and put her own stamp on it by sautéing the styles in her own history. It’s an artistic step forward.