[24 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Spring is a good time to experience Dionne Farris. There’s something about growth and renewal that symbolizes the arc of the singer’s career. 20 years ago, Farris released her solo debut Wild Seed — Wild Flower (1994) shortly after departing Arrested Development. Her re-emergence with Signs of Life (2008) followed a decade-long hibernation. Since then, she’s reclaimed her stake as a vocal virtuoso and songwriter, especially on her album-length collaboration with trumpeter Russell Gunn, Dionne Get Your Gunn (2013). She’s ventured beyond the soul-rock-alternative fusion of her earlier material and found a new home in jazz. Based on her recent appearance with the Russell Gunn Quartet at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club, Farris is clearly in full bloom.
The improvisational nature of jazz suits the elasticity of Farris’ voice. It’s a quality that could be glimpsed even when “I Know” dominated the airwaves back in ‘95. The way Farris caressed the notes during the bridge was unlike any other sound on Top 40 radio at the time. Her voice is a veritable Cirque de Soleil, boasting a colorful array of different textures, flourishes, and smartly deployed acrobatics. In fact, Farris is so in command of her instrument that not even a springtime bout with congestion dimmed the full might of her vocal power.
“Remember My Name” began the singer’s six-song, 70-minute conversation with Gunn and musicians John Lamkin (drums), Romeir Mendez (upright bass), and Federico Peña (piano). It set a moody tone and established the quartet’s seamless interplay. The music came to a near whisper as Peña soloed on the melody while the dynamics built to a climax with Farris exclaiming, “If you see it in your eyes would you even recognize?” Without a trace of fatigue, Farris held the last syllable for no less than 30 seconds. Farris could have walked off the stage and called it a night, right then and there. The audience still would have received their money’s worth.
The conversation resumed with Nat Adderley’s “The Work Song”. Farris credited Nina Simone’s recording as her introduction to the standard. “It’s one of my favorite songs,” she said. “I just love Nina Simone’s whole style and thought process in approaching songs.” Infusing Oscar Brown Jr’s lyrics with spirit, Farris made “The Work Song” a personal story and rendered the lyrics like a soliloquy. A tangible pathos dripped from her voice, which effortlessly careened up and down the scales. Lamkin, Mendez, and Peña each held their own underneath Gunn’s solo, honoring the integrity of Adderley’s composition while stamping it with their own kind of swing.
Farris clearly relishes her ongoing collaboration with Gunn. “It gives me someplace else to go as an artist,” she said. “I Know” underscored that sentiment. Anyone familiar with the driving rock of the original studio recording might be surprised to find it recast in a jazz setting but Gunn’s quartet made the new arrangement work. Farris stood in blissful reverie as Peña soloed. “I’m really having the time of my life with this style of music,” Farris said at the song’s conclusion. Swooping up and grabbing notes from some other stratosphere, her performance left no room for doubt.
When Farris first introduced the self-penned “For U” on Signs of Life, it was a laid-back, introspective yet tuneful highlight of the album, ornamented with clever couplets like “Matter not how many trees that you see, matter how beautiful the ones you see be”. Between Dionne Get Your Gunn and the Iridium, “For U” has found its identity as a jazz song. The players slipped into a groove that moved underneath Farris like a gently crashing wave. Mendez prompted one of the most ardent responses of the evening with a kinetic solo that not only revealed his versatility as a bassist but also the many ways an upright bass can come alive on stage.
The quiet embers of “Fair” grew into an inferno. Each musician seemed to live the lyrics of the song, right alongside Farris. Lamkin, in particular, was inspired to turn the skin of his snare drum into a conga. Trading his drumsticks for his hands, fingers, and elbow, Lamkin was nothing short of mesmerizing. Farris then turned “Fair” into a display of vocal pyrotechnics. A lava of words erupted from within. She jumped up and down on the stage, tearing into the lyrics (“Who said that life was fair”) with a ferocity that the Iridium had likely never seen before and will probably never see again (until Farris returns, that is).
“I can’t leave the building without doing this one,” said Farris as the familiar chords of “Hopeless” signaled her encore. One of the most enduring songs from the Love Jones (1997) soundtrack, “Hopeless” translates exceptionally well to a jazz context. Gunn’s trumpet doubled Farris on the closing phrase (“bah-ba-bah …”), wrapping a beautiful bow around the melody. It’s a testament to Gunn and Farris’ creative rapport that they’ve explored and discovered new dimensions in a modern standard penned by Van Hunt.
Earlier in the evening, Farris shared, “I’m overwhelmed that I’m able to continue to do what I’m able to do”. As Farris prepares to embark on a studio project where she interprets the songs of Dionne Warwick, one thing is clear: this beautiful “wildflower” continues to grow, no matter the season.