Stride Magazine -

  Mighty Hermaphrodite

Light of Day
by Devorah Day, featuring Marion Brown
(Abaton Book Company, CD ABC#009)

The publicity notes for Day’s debut album, which was actually recorded five years ago in New York, describe it as ‘a multi-layered yet minimalistic statement, a subtly hued tone poem.’ Indeed, the impressionistic, highly-suggestive vocals and instrumentation are as evocative as Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune’. Although, the diverse textures and energy of the music make a comparison with Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie more accurate ­ in spirit of course, not in size or ambition. Many of the sound effects ­ for this is not absolute music, not pure jazz ­ remind me of the soundtrack to black-and-white Hollywood films. Intriguingly, the title of Messiaen’s massive paean to spirituality is made up of two Sanskrit words: ‘Turanga’ denotes time, surging ever onward, held back by ‘Lila’, which signifies ‘play’‚ articulating the flow of time with drama. Franz A. Matzner writes of the unusual and unorthodox line-up of voice, saxophones and bass: ‘The absence of both piano and drums liberates Day from the temporally segmented nature of percussive sound...’ Day has removed ‘Turanga’ from her compositions, and left ‘Lila’, articulating the flow of time with drama. The whole album is a playful experiment in jazz, and is, as Matzner says, ‘a highly complex and astute creation.’

‘Lila’ happens to be the title of the first track. It begins with the saxophones and bass playing gently, setting the nostalgic mood like the beginning of a film, suggesting a kitchen or a domestic scene. The instruments simmer, like vegetables boiling in a pan on the stove, threatening to boil. Day said that she decided to sing it as a lullaby. Her voice enters softly. She is crooning a story to her child, maybe a fairy-tale, complete with sound effects, sending him off to sleep. Then, without warning, it becomes alarmingly hard and loud like a shout, a yell, a sudden deep masculine presence. It is shocking that it should come from the same place as the delicate, charming voice that began. She exhibits an almost schizophrenic ability to impersonate different voices. It is as if Day is singing a musical melodrama for two or more voices. What I could have sworn was a muted trumpet whines an impression of a train‚s whistle, or a kettle boiling, loudening into a fierce hum, like a fly buzzing against the windowpane ˆ but it is her voice. She dips low, deep, and then back to gentleness, fluctuating between naïve sweetness and a knowledgeable maturity ­ the two expressions somehow combined in her face on the cover of the CD. The voice is emotionally uncompromising, stripped bare of sentimentality or decoration, like a naked violin.

Like watching a film, you lose your sense of time, becoming involved in the time of what you are listening to ­ the song restructures time according to its own logic. As Matzner says, the instrumentation is ‘...tremendously effective in framing Day’s highly idiosyncratic approach [...] Instead of dictating a rhythmic or melodic path for Day to navigate, the sax section [...] encases Day in a tonally fluid, textural space.’ It is a space in which Day has freedom to experiment, where you have a thrilling sense that anything can happen, different to ‘the standard jazz atmosphere evoked by such aural cues as snare and ride, chord progressions...’ The effect is ‘a different feel, a floating sensation.’ Day said herself in interview, ‘I needed a bassist to be the focal point as far as I was concerned in the music because the bass strikes me more as a heartbeat.’ This choice produces a more intimate, natural atmosphere; you are not so aware of the studio, or of the structure of the music, as you might be with drums and piano. It is more organic, all voices and pulse. Day wanted to move away from the ‘controlled, studio-driven method’ into something freer. In her phrasing, tempo, pitch, rhythm, mood, and melody, Day embodies Mahler’s principle of ‘continuous variation’‚ and it is in this atypical environment that she has such room to manoeuvre.

The impressionistic ­ I am almost tempted to say filmic, because of the images it conjures up ­ aspect of her music, is most evident in ‘Free Jam‚’ the last track, one of Day’s three original compositions balancing the three standards. Day said of this song that it was ‘something that I came up with sitting on the stoop outside of my building.’ It is eight minutes and fifteen seconds of surrealistic experimentation. Matzner calls it ‘an interesting historical journey through the history of jazz.’ He points out that the beat is kept with the voice, and ‘all the different elements of skat singing and different jazz singing [are] all mixed together in one place...’ ‘Free Jam’ is the musical equivalent of sitting on the stoop outside of Day’s apartment building; the noise and atmosphere translated, and transformed into music. ‘...I wanted [...] to mirror conversations in the street, traffic sounds, everything that makes me think of music. When people speak to me, I hear music, so that is what I wanted to have through this.’ It is an experimental, jazz tone poem, based on a non-musical thing; it has its roots in the real world. Unlike Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain
’ the music is written to sound like something, or give the impression of something else. It is not only inspired by something extra-musical, but it is designed to sound like it as well.

Kid Lucky, the guest vocal instrumentalist, keeps the beat. Day whines like the siren of a police car. You can hear people going up and down stairs, knocking and banging on doors, strolling along the pavement. A radio plays from an open window. A window creaks open or shut. A ship’s fog-horn blasts in the harbour, or it’s a car’s horn honking in the street. A car door slams shut. A conversation. An argument. The day changes and quietens to a lull, the hot afternoon, evening, noisy again, the daily rhythm, rise and fall of sounds. Street vendors. Dancing. Animals. A telephone. The idea of someone watching. A voice calls up from the street to a window. A piece of furniture is moved heavily, knocking against the door-frame, scraping across the floor. Someone is singing to them self, trying to remember the words or the tune. A city-scene like a John Ashbery poem, letting the composition be interrupted by what happens around her, what occurs to her, including it all. A baby crying. It correlates to something tangible, but it is also a thing in itself: Day is singing for the sake of singing, they are playing just to play. This piece, like the album, is a balancing act between improvised polyphony and cacophony, between tradition and innovation, the orthodox and idiosyncratic, and between emotions like melancholy and exuberance.

Day says she ‘came up with’ the track: she is a singer, a songwriter, but also a conceptualist. She has strong, original ideas about the music she wants to make and how she wants to make it. The versatility and open mind with which she approaches all of these songs is a consequence of the ‘circuitous route’, as she describes it, that she made her way to jazz. Day went from form to form. ‘I went from country music to singing madrigals, to singing folk, to opera, and then to jazz.’ Although this is her debut album, Day is an accomplished singer, comfortable in many styles. When listening to her sing, her voice often strays out of what you might consider jazz singing into all of these forms and more. At one point, she sounds like an Arabic muezzin. She is not afraid to use whatever means necessary to achieve her goal of ‘expressive expansion’, of creating a form which will take whatever she puts in it. Day is not vain. She is like an actress not afraid to look ugly, to break out of the accepted role. Day is never predictable, never boring, and it is not merely wilful perversity: there is a logic to it. You are compelled to keep listening. The publicity notes claim rightly, though tritely, that ‘Her phrasing has few limitations as she chases her own tale by leaps and bounds through gray skies, toward greener pastures.’

Day recounts the story of her first meeting with Marion Brown ­ the legendary saxophonist, who accompanies her here ­ at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where she listened to him play for the first time. After the concert, she grabbed him by the hand and took him up to one of the rehearsal rooms, where she sang Jobim’s ‘Dindi’ for him, included on the album at Brown’s insistence. ‘ he sat there and listened and at one point he jumped out of his chair and then I said, “Are you OK?” [...] “Yes, I’m doing just fine, thank you so much.” And he sat back down and he said, “Please continue.” I did.’ Interestingly, for more than one reason, Brown writes in the liner notes, ‘The first time I heard her was at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where she performed “Lover Man” and stole my heart with her sound. The next time I heard her was at my house. She sang “Dindi” by Antonio Carlos Jobim for me and showed off her amazing vocal gymnastics. [...] When she reached the top of her range, I wondered where she’d go next. She dropped three octaves and sang a bass note that made me jump out of my seat.’ In the middle of a subtle lyric, Day will unexpectedly produce a startling, disconcertingly gruff bass note, a holler, as if Louis Armstrong has just walked into the studio, which could sound affected to some.

But the voice is what you remember, what makes you return. It is as beautiful and uncanny as Yma Sumac. But this very originality provokes the question of whether it is a novelty act. As remarkable as her talent is, it distracts from the emotional content of the song. You concentrate on the detail, the surface, as on a fine brushstroke, and are not moved, as in the abstract, acapella ‘Lover Man’. ‘That song is me, if that makes sense. The music has to appeal for me first with a song. It has to reach me in three different places, two of which I will mention ­ to a gentleman. It has to reach me in my heart. It has to reach me intellectually. And the other spot, I will not mention. And then the lyrics come in. And if the lyrics are true, then I can sing the song.’ Contrary to what Day says, which encourages me to listen again, the song seems more an avant garde experiment than a confession. She is singing without emotion. She is in total control of her voice, and she controls the disturbances that are meant to emulate disturbed emotions. Matzner calls it ‘an abstract dirge [...] a frozen plea from another plane’, adding that ‘...her experimentation [is] nourished by the depth of the original compositions.’ To me it remains distant and cold. Is it done for effect? Is she showing off? Does the content of the song require or fit with this form?

The unfortunately-titled, ‘Our bit of piddling’, Brown and Day’s audition tape, highlights this tension between self-indulgence and playfulness. Day is like a talented child plinking away on the piano for the sheer pleasure of the sounds she can make. It can grab or irritate the listener according to his or her taste and/or mood. She is testing the acrobatic virtuosity of her voice, swinging like a trapeze artist in the circus tent, performing flips and somersaults that you are amazed she can pull off without falling, going higher and higher, then swooping lower. It takes your breath away. But the occasional shrillness of her voice, like a shriek from the crowd, is sometimes too much. It exerts a strain on the listener, which is repaid by the pleasure you get from the performance. You are impressed, but it requires a healthy ear as watching a trapeze artist perform without a net requires a healthy heart. It is a warm, honest, witty and intimate recording, showing Day relaxed and having fun, forming the word ‘Marion’ as expertly as a smoke ring, laughing at her whim. Day moans, hums, croons, screams, whistles, howls, wails, chants, harmonises, bellows and talks. What makes listening to this album so exciting is Day’s protean ability to move from form to form, feminine to masculine, pitch to pitch, and between emotions with such ease.

                  © Paul Rowland 2003