Since the musical output of Ingrid Chavez has been far and few between these last two decades, it’s something of a task to track her musical growth. Those who are in the know about Chavez’s work will remember her from her days with the Paisley Park production team (one of the many side projects of Prince), resulting in her 1991 debut release, May 19, 1992. That album was a judicious mix of skeletal dance beats, understated pop hooks, and hushed poetry. Hearing that album today, it now betrays the trappings of early ’90s production values and seems to suffer from the too-many-cooks syndrome, with Chavez fighting for space to accommodate her artistry.
On the other hand, you also get the sense that Chavez was on to something in the way of musical language, being that she was one of the earliest female artists to merge spoken word with a dance floor sensibility. She is, after all, credited with co-penning Madonna’s sultry slice of musical eros, “Justify My Love”, a tone-poem of love, sex, and controversy that reshaped the public’s idea of a pop lyric. Following the release of her debut and a few moderately successful singles, Chavez seemed to recede from public view and little was heard from her. In reality, she would marry art-pop trailblazer David Sylvian, on occasion contributing to his oeuvre of work while holding down the fort maternally and quietly making designs on a follow-up album, which would finally see fruition after 19 years.
A Flutter and Some Words is the combined effort of Chavez and Italian composer Lorenzo Scopelliti, who initially sent Chavez a composition a couple years back, which kick-started their collaborative song-writing process. Much of this album was pieced unhurriedly together, mostly over the Internet, with the two artists emailing their contributions back and forth between the US and Italy. This transatlantic exchange is apparent on the album; there is a strain of European jazz that underscores the music. This influence in particular is what expunges all preconceptions that might exist in lieu of Chavez’s dance-pop flirtations of yore. Given that many of the songs on this album are working within the structures of jazz (though not exclusively), the more confining borders of the pop format are removed, allowing Chavez to invite more space into her designs and experiment freely with other sonic textures. It also allows her voice, cool and clear like fresh water, to breathe easier in the airy spaces of the music.
In fact, Flutter is all about spaces, both private and open, yielding to an array of live instruments (brass, woodwinds, and strings). These sounds collide and ribbon around the centre from which the singer’s voice emanates, but they never threaten to overtake it. The album, in addition, is mainly devoid of the dance beats that featured heavily on her debut, excepting first single “By the Water”, a delicate, crisp hip-hop number sparsely coloured by the soft cries of a trumpet and the digital ripples of a synthesizer.
What really opens up Flutter, in fact, are the far more expansive numbers that show off Chavez’s growth as a songwriter. In “Mine”, a lone violin threads its way through the meditative, circular guitar lines and swirls in the rhythm of some lightly tapped percussion. It works to create a sense of solitude and resignation, sentiments that are echoed in other tracks — like the heavy heart of “No Goodbyes”, made heavier by the contemplative, forceful strokes of a piano and found-sound samples of falling pennies (perhaps from heaven?). There is also a suggestion of other musical flavours that factor into the sonic mix; the title track appropriates a classic jazz riff by way of an electronic beat and harkens back to the days of fossa, the smoky nightclub take on ’50s Brazilian jazz that was made popular by the likes of Maysa Matarazzo and Nora Ney. Trading in standard jazz fingerings for treated woodwinds and sly snatches of DJ scratching, the song still retains the lush romanticism that fossa is noted for while being performed from a contemporary standpoint.
Elsewhere, Chavez explores more gritty terrain, such as on the earthy, fractured rhythms of “Tightrope”, a scrap-metal opus of clanks, creaks, and groans drowning in a wash of ethereal blues. Here, we get an idea of the kind of invention that took place behind the scenes; there isn’t so much a sense to prove any sort of musical technique as there is to introduce the listener to alternative modes of music-making. Though intricate and artfully crafted, we never feel like we are being schooled on the M.O. of art-pop.
This comes down to the interplay between Chavez and Scopelliti; an interaction, challenge, and acceptance of musical ideas that ultimately distinguish the more mannered and restrained approach of Scopelliti from the spontaneity and abandonment of Chavez’s. And somehow the work manages an elegant balance of imagination and discipline. This attitude is openly voiced in “Back Roads”. The track features a buzzing synth that sounds as if it is being transmitted from somewhere outside the song, imprinting it with a sense of urgency. The clarinet that cuts its way through the bells and chimes orbiting in the airy mix is a nice and curious touch. In the song, Chavez sings of opportunity at the expense of comfort, leaving for the back roads and more importantly, the power to leave and affirm an identity.
A Flutter and Some Words arrives this winter. It seems justly suited for a season that respires with an alternating sense of stillness and flurry. It arrives with assuredness but not without a feeling of turbulence — something not quite excised in the past 19 years that it took for this album to materialize. A compass in the midst of rhythm and song, Chavez navigates around emotions of misgiving and desire, equal components in the routines of life. It is an album not of reborn love, but of seductions, old and new, taking place in troubled air.