Category: Jazzfolk

On Race and the Folk Community
(with Jazzfolk from KJ Denhert and Lizz Wright)

November 29th, 2008 — 07:39 pm

The relative dearth of both musicians and audience members of color in the American folk scene is both a running gag and an embarrassing secret; as evidence, I note that I once saw Vance Gilbert remark onstage to Ruthie Foster that, with both of them in the same songcircle, “every black person at the festival is on stage right now — we should start a movement!”

While Gilbert’s attempt at brash humor may not have been technically accurate, his comment — and the uncomfortable laughter which followed it — speaks to the self-perpetuating stereotype of American folk as white music for white folks, a stereotype only deepening now that the predominantly white indie movement and its almost exclusively caucasian hipster fans have begun a comprehensive usurpation of the term “folk” to reflect a particularly acoustic and/or appalachian authenticity within their own communities.

Ella Jenkins, Elizabeth Cotten, Taj Mahal, Odetta, Richie Havens, The Carolina Chocolate Drops (pictured above), and the above-mentioned artists aside, it is true that the percentage of black musicians in folk music is curiously light — an oddity, especially given how powerfully and deeply the roots of american folk music reach into the acoustic blues forms of the American South. And it is also interesting to me that the few black musicians performing today who identify as folk lean heavily towards the blues and jazz ends of the genre, where hybridization is the name of the game, and where one can legitimately make a case that blues and jazz are, to some extent, the folk music of the black community.

Which is to say: The question of race and folk is a recognizable (albeit oft-avoided) phenomenon worthy of more serious study than a blog can provide. But whether you choose to embrace the discomfort or sweep it under the proverbial rug, acknowledging this very real issue provides an especially interesting context in which to present relatively new works from two still-rising black female musicians from the jazz end of the folk genre, both of whom crossed my desk in past few weeks.

KJ Denhert has plenty of indie and folk cred — she’s won songwriting contests from Kerrville to Mountain Stage, and she produces her records on her own label. But this NY-based singer-songwriter, who has also opened for the likes of Alicia Keys, defies easy genre categorization. Her recent live album Vivo a Umbria Jazz was, as the title notes, recorded live at this past year’s Umbria Jazz festival in Italy — an unusual place to find folk music, to say the least. The rich, fluid, improvisational music which Denhert produces with this wonderful ensemble didn’t sound like folk to my ears at first, either, though it was highly rewarding in its own right.

But something kept nagging at me to reconsider Vivo a Umbria Jazz for Cover Lay Down. It certainly sounded familiar as folk, and once I finally placed the sound, I realized that this is a sterling example of the kind of folk music that Joni Mitchell was making in the studio in the mid to late seventies, starting with Hejira: freestyle jazz production built around an acoustic guitar and a low, slightly breathy voice which weaves in and out of rhythm like a saxophone soloist.

Denhert’s last live album won the Independent Music Award for Best Live Recording, and if it was anything like this, it’s easy to see why: the more I listen, the more I appreciate both the sheer glee of Vivo a Umbria — Denhert’s eighth — and the delightful musical hybrid form which Denhert categorizes as “Urban Folk and Jazz”. Here, she takes on Police standard Message in a Bottle, playing with the sax like Sting himself in his Dream of the Blue Turtles days, and strips down old Oz chestnut Somewhere Over the Rainbow into something acoustic and quite Joni-esque; at her promoter’s request, they are available here in streaming form only. For both produced and live versions of these covers and more, plus some stellar confessional originals, head over to KJ Denhert’s website to peruse, and/or to Motema to purchase.

  • STREAM: KJ Denhert: Message in a Bottle (orig. The Police)

  • STREAM: KJ Denhert: Somewhere Over The Rainbow (orig. Dorothy Gale)

Lizz Wright hit the blogs a long while back, and I liked it; my father recommended her again this summer, and I nodded my head and said I liked it again. But it wasn’t until yesterday afternoon, when I finally got a chance to sit down with her 2005 album Dreaming Wide Awake and listen to it all the way through, that I really felt the pull.

Wright is an alto jazz siren who gets filed under “vocals” in our local library; Dreaming Wide Awake topped the Contemporary Jazz charts the year it was released, and her MySpace trifecta calls her particular style R&B/Soul/Jazz. But as so many others have noted, there’s something quietly stunning here which transcends the dubious and oft-cheesy genre categorization. The songs on Dreaming Wide Awake teeter on the edge of popfolk production values, showing Wright in stellar control of a full range of emotion that runs from hushed R&B emotion to smooth bluesy harmonies to full-bore vocal jazz; it is telling to find both similarly powerful folkblues icon Toshi Reagon and versatile crossoverjazz guitarist Bill Frisell stepping in for guest slots here.

The Neil Young cover is solid folk poprock, both here and live via YouTube; the cover of seventies hippie hit Get Together is inevitably precious, but still manages to hold its head up. But it’s the Ella Jenkins folkcover that really blows me away: warm and viscous as honey, sultry and dripping with anticipation. A perfect album for fireside nights, whether you’re staring into the fire or cuddling beside it; snag it and her 2008 crossover release The Orchard — which includes several equally great covers, including a gorgeous rendition of Hey Mann, from folkblues a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock — here, direct from Verve.

Cover Lay Down posts new features every Sunday, Wednesday, and the occasional holiday and otherday. Stay tuned this week and beyond for more of the stuff you like best, including an exploration of the folkier solo output of one of my favorite stars of the late eighties and early nineties alt-punk scene, who is most famous for the band he formed in the hallways of my very own high school.

1,142 comments » | Jazzfolk