Monday, September 26, 2016

Meanwhile...Maddie Jay & the pH Collective's Arrival

I followed the Berklee-trained bass prodigy Maddie Jay in late 2014, when she would post note-for-note covers of Jazz and R&B heavyweights from Jaco Pastorius to Stevie Wonder. Though tastes are changing with the implementation of such artists in the curriculum of music colleges, it was still striking to see someone so young do justice to some of the most technically demanding music from long ago. Jay's cover of Weather Report's lightning speed bass classic "Teen Town" even caught the eye of Metallica's Robert Trujillo.

When Jay launched her Facebook music page and billed herself as a "singer, songwriter and rapper", her cult of followers responded with great intrigue. After having gained some notoriety as a bass pro, did she decide overnight that she wanted to expand into other creative ventures, or had she been working on a career behind the scenes?

The latter turned out to be the likely case, and the result is the fan-funded Meanwhile.., the recording debut of Jay, backed by a collective of Berklee musicians dubbed the pH Collective. In the months before its release, Jay & the pH Collective released the serenely funky single "Throw Away Your Hate" and several live performances. This provided insight into the band's tight interplay and Jay's potential as a bandleader, but revealed little about the end production en route.

One of the greatest strengths of Meanwhile... is its difficulty to place into any existing category, much like Jamiroquai before them. It's an album of subtle contradictions. The whiny envelope filters and laid back grooves recall 1990's R&B or Hip-Hop, but Jay's dense chord progressions and the band's organic playing root them squarely within an "acidic" take on jazz. Even the cover of the Spice Girls' "Say You'll Be There" augments the post-disco pop song with a complex slash chord arrangement worthy of Steely Dan.

Like Steely Dan, the production on the album is as tight as any state of the art pop record, impressive for a relatively large group. Even the distorted guitar solos and drums never sound harsh or muted, finding the middle ground usually heard in large studios. For a band featuring many virtuoso players, the arrangements are surprisingly economical and song-oriented. Even Jay's bass spends very little time dominating the spotlight. Whenever a solo is taken, it's usually melodic, groovy and lasts not a bar too long.

At times, the pH Collective sound very much like jazz school favorites in the vein of the Yellowjackets or Lettuce, but Jay's equal emphasis on storytelling and youthfully urbane verses set the group apart from such instrumentally-focused groups. Lyrically, Jay mixes post-millennial disillusionment with her own innate optimism on songs like "Let's Talk (Trade in Your Vice)" and the upbeat "Freaky Lady". Even the caustic urban tale "This City" teeters on cynicism without embracing it. "I'm Tired (Of You)" is the darkest song on the album, yet its ?uestlove-like beat and elastic bass line make it sound as fun as "Freaky Lady".

Meanwhile... is a refreshingly original debut, something of an anomaly in today's music scene which features more electronics and fewer piece-by-piece bands. While Jay is indeed the visionary and commanding presence of the pH Collective, this is the sound a group of equally-weighted musicians, with no audible weak links. It's the sound of a band defying any existing convention in Jazz, Pop or R&B.  The band is indeed young, but possessive of an immense amount of skill. The only question is what direction Jay and the band will take next.

As a rock fan, I would absolutely love to hear Maddie adopt the draggy cynicism of Lou Reed, or the pH Collective bending the rules they've mastered by taking a note from Talking Heads.


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