(Forever Living Originals, *** 1/2)
One of the biggest mysteries of the genre-bending British group Sault is how they have been able to release five uniformly great albums in a little over two years. Nine, which the band claims will be available for only 99 days (until Oct. 2), follows two of last year’s best albums, Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise), and two of 2019′s highlights, 5 and 7. Like its predecessors, Nine is explicitly about Black experience, in this case, about growing up in London’s council estates. It’s an album full of trauma and resilience and tantalizing songs.
Sault avoids press and most social media (although Nine streams on their Instagram account and is available to download for free from www.sault.global), and the exact membership of the band is unclear, aside from producer Inflo (Dean Cover, who helped produced Michael Kiwanuka’s last album), singer Cleo Sol (Cleopatra Nikolic), and a few other regular contributors.
Nine plays like a mixtape, journeying from sparse, beat-heavy tracks (“Fear,” which chops up the phrase “the pain is real”; “London Gangs,” which rumbles like an old Chemical Brothers cut) to melancholy and beautiful ballads (“Bitter Streets,” “Alcohol”) to more hopeful, jazzy, collage-like constructions (“Nine,” “Light’s in Your Hands”). Spoken-word segments, sometimes harrowing, sometime humorous, divide the three acts, linking the songs as a sustained interrogation.
Last year’s Untitled albums were more lush and leaned more on old-school soul; like 5 and 7, Nine is stripped down (and brief, at 34 minutes). It follows the numerical sequence, although the meaning of it is another mystery.
— Steve Klinge
I Know I’m Funny haha
(Secretly Canadian *** 1/2)
The funny thing about I Know I’m Funny haha is that Faye Webster isn’t trying to be funny anymore.
The Atlanta songwriter and photographer’s first three albums were marked by detached, bemused irony. There was real feeling to be found, but if Webster wanted to communicate a sense of loneliness, she was liable to toss off a clever line like, “my dog is my best friend, and he doesn’t even know my name,” on “Jonny,” from 2019′s Atlanta Millionaires Club.
As inviting as that album was, I Know I’m Funny — whose opening song “Better Distractions” made it on to Barack Obama’s favorite songs of 2020 playlist — is that much more effective.
That’s partly because Webster has grown more comfortable building songs from delectably understated hallmarks of old-school soul that settle in and cast a languorous spell. An organ fill here, a hint of strings and a touch of sax there, paired with a near-deadpan delivery: “I didn’t know I was capable of being happy right now,” Webster sings on “In a Good Way,” with disarming directness. “But you showed me how.”
Songs that might appear to be goofs wind up having an emotional impact. “A Dream With a Baseball Player,” about Webster’s fond feelings for Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. — that’s a lighthearted novelty, right?
Not really. The song notes the absurdity of — and finds the pathos in — forming intimate bonds with those we only see on screens, or in our dreams. “I saw you last night in my dream, that’s the closest you and I have been / That’s kind of sad, don’t you think?” It is, but the way Webster sings it, it’s also sort of beautiful.
— Dan DeLuca
The Baylor Project
(Be a Light, *** 1/2)
The Philly-based husband-and-wife duo of Jean and Marcus Baylor had achieved success individually — she with the R&B duo Zhané, he as drummer with fusion greats Yellowjackets, among others — before launching The Baylor Project. The pair’s 2017 debut, The Journey, earned them a pair of Grammy nominations, but their follow-up is a bold leap forward. In his liner notes for Generations, writer Andre Kimo Stone Guess draws parallels between the album and the African American quilt-making tradition, with its artistic, communal, and historic connections. It’s an apt analogy given the stylistic reach and wealth of experience covered by the Baylors, who draw from jazz, R&B, gospel, and spirituals for inspiration.
The album begins with an organ-fueled party vibe on opener “Strivin’,” graced by a buoyant solo by alto sax great Kenny Garrett; the mood turns tender with a rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” featuring a blissful new lyric by Jean, then dark with a new spiritual-inspired piece entitled “2020.” Made to sound like a chain gang chant played from a scratchy 78 record, the song becomes a lament for the continued struggles cast into harsh light by last year’s political turmoil.
Singers Jazzmeia Horn and Dianne Reeves engage Jean in a scat round robin on the delightful “We Swing,” while pianist Sullivan Fortner brings stride into the present day for the nostalgic “Do You Remember This?”
The album is a true family affair, with reflections on love and marriage contributed by a number of relatives, and a closing benediction by Marcus’ pastor brother Larry J. Baylor.
— Shaun Brady
The Baylor Project at South Jazz Kitchen, 600 N. Broad St. at 7 and 9 p.m. July 10 and 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. July 11, $39-$45, southjazzkitchen.com, 215-600-0220