Modern jazz is an acquired taste, I think, and here’s my theory why: most music with vocals today follows a pattern, whether you realize it or not. Verse, chorus, repeat, bridge, end, or some very close variation to that. It’s a proven formula for a good song and we hear it so often that we’ve become accustomed to it to the point where it’s expected. But jazz sometimes…wanders. It goes here and there, then hopefully back around again, particularly when there’s no one singing. This is not necessarily good or bad. But it is different.
The Song Dynasty has produced what can be easily described as a good jazz album. The trio—made up of Kate Lewis on vocals, Ryan Baird on guitar and Nick Muzyczka on keyboard—are very good musicians; it’s obvious as soon as you hear them. Lewis has a confident, fluid voice, clearly suited to each song. The talent and skill of Baird and Muzyczka is reliable to the point where they sound as though they’ve been playing together much longer than 2009, when the group formed. In a word, the three of them sound tight.
But All That’s Keeping You Here isn’t just technically good from a performance standpoint, it’s also interesting. There are interesting things going on in the songs. Interesting time signatures, interesting sounds, interesting lyrics about ordinary stuff. I’ve called this a jazz album, which it is, but you could more aptly describe it as jazz fusion, as you can hear a heavy funk influence, along with dub and reggae sounds, even a bit of rock and electronic downbeat. In fact, the songs that work best on the album are the least overtly jazzy. For example, the showy “When France Comes to You” sounds like the jazz stepchild of a European folk song. “Rise Up” and “So Much More” have breezy guitars reminiscent of early 90s rock and a more traditional song structure that make them easily listenable.
These songs are good ones, but I mention them not just because they’re good, but because they try to stand out on this album, which is where the problem lies. There are so many things going on in this album—so many things that make it interesting, different sounds, different influences, so many beats—that it’s not cohesive. It’s a collection of songs that sound picked out of the air and put together with less thought to the overall arc of the album. I keep waiting for these songs to bond together and go somewhere, and make the album go somewhere, and they never do.
This is why I think jazz is acquired. What happens is that these songs start strongly, but at some point begin to wander, and in that wandering, lose the melody and rhythm and course. There’s a certain amount of freedom in improvisation, of course, but without a melody to come back to, we’re just listening to sounds. Good sounds as produced by a good group, but still. They wander and drift, but not in any way that keeps you connected to the overall sound. What works in a live show, perhaps, doesn’t always translate into an album.
So what happens is that this album becomes relegated to the background. You put it on and it fades into the environment instead of holding your attention, and I don’t think that’s what these musicians were aiming for. Without standout pieces and without a coherence that ties one song to another which ties it together as an album, all you’ve got is a record of acceptable (even good!) yet detached songs which fade into one another and end up sounding surprisingly the same, despite all the good stuff that’s going on.
I think that The Song Dynasty has made an accessible, listenable album, particularly if you’re a modern jazz fan, but unfortunately it’s one that lacks whatever factor makes you come back to it, or replay a song to hear it again. But there’s potential there (you can hear it at the beginning of every song) and with such strong talent and musicianship being shown by The Song Dynasty, it’s worth it to stick around to see what they’ll do next.
The Song Dynasty’s official website.
The Song Dynasty on Myspace.
The Song Dynasty on Douban.
The Song Dynasty on Reverbnation.
Buy and listen to All That’s Keeping You Here on The Song Dynasty’s Badcamp page.