Reinvention is always a risky venture, especially where the careers of recording artists are concerned. How will listeners respond to an act who’s drastically changed their style or revamped their image? For Brooklyn-based Aziza, reinvention began with changing her name. During the mid-’70s, the music community knew Aziza as “Linda Williams” when she shattered the glass ceiling and became one of the first female musical directors in the industry. From 1975 through 1980, she was Natalie Cole’s MD and released a solo album on Arista called City Living (1979), which included the popular sample “Elevate Our Minds”. Two decades later, Linda Williams re-emerged as “Aziza” — a name she felt better defined her, both personally and creatively.
If Aziza’s performance at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAM Café was any indication, reinvention has only made her artistry flourish. She bathed BAM Café in a post-Valentine’s Day glow with “Aziza & Friends: Music from My DNA”, a set of original songs that exhibited her range as a singer, songwriter, musician, and band leader. (Aziza’s natural camaraderie with her bassist, drummer, percussionist, and two background vocalists easily justified the “Friends” aspect of the show’s title.) From the moment Aziza sauntered to the piano before a standing room-only crowd, the bright starbursts of silver light that adorn BAM Café seemed to blink and vibrate stronger than usual. Throughout her 70-minute set, Aziza’s heart and soul permeated the piano keys while her stack of blond tresses danced atop her head like a flickering flame.
Observing the romantic spirit of Valentine’s Day, Aziza opened with “Hiz Eyez”, a spoken word piece set against a laid back groove. “He makes my butter fly” was just one of many lines that displayed Aziza’s clever wordplay. Background vocalists Alfa Anderson and Chanique Rogers joined her on the chorus, testifying how a lover’s alluring gaze has a spellbinding, mesmerizing effect. “O.A.P.T.” took romantic infatuation even further, with the title’s initials spelling out the song’s main hook: “Obsessed, Addicted, Possessed, Twisted”. Aziza maintained a playful vibe, adding a jazzy interlude that made insatiable desire seem like an adventure in paradise.
“We love you Aziza”, an audience member shouted at the song’s conclusion. “I love you back”, she answered, and launched into “Looking”, a song that traces the complexities of unrequited love. “I thought we were going to take it easy / but your ego interrupted the flow,” she sang. “If I could tell my heart what to do, it would fall in love with you.” Bassist Red Bass, drummer Damon DueWhite, and percussionist Gary Fritz anchored the song with a sumptuous groove, enveloping Aziza’s lyrics with a nocturnal ambience.
Shifting tones, “Bop Bop Ba Da Doo In Da Da” prompted one of the evening’s most zealous responses. Aziza nearly set the piano ablaze with a solo that left many mouths agape in wonder. “Time to celebrate, show that we appreciate”, she chanted with Anderson and Rogers. She rose from the piano bench and danced into the crowd, who eagerly joined the three vocalists on the song’s refrain. “You gotta love yourself first and then you spread that love around,” she said after her performance filled the room with enough love to levitate BAM Café’s tables off the floor.
The middle of Aziza’s set belonged to “La Costa”, her first composition that was ever recorded. Natalie Cole released “La Costa” on her Thankful (1977) album but the song assumed a life of its own through subsequent versions by Ahmad Jamal and other jazz artists. “If I had any idea of the impact (it) would have on the industry and everyday people … I’m in awe,” Aziza said before playing the song as she originally composed it decades ago. Alternately graceful and animated on the keys, Aziza painted a vivid picture even without singing the lyrics. As an instrumental, “La Costa” furnished a dreamy passport away from icy New York streets and the partially melted snow of Brooklyn sidewalks.
Aziza followed the most well-known song of her set with one of her most personal compositions, “Eleven-27”. She explained the meaning behind the title, “That’s the date that my mother birthed me into this world.” Just like the recorded version on JazzSoetry V2 (2010), Aziza ornamented the song’s strutting groove with a lilting piano melody. “Eleven-27” was the artist’s personal treatise, written in rhythms and melodies rather than letters and words.
“Take out your Metro card”, Aziza commanded after winding down “Eleven-27”. Rising from behind the piano, she approached the microphone stand and strapped a keytar around her shoulder. Any frequent guest of Aziza’s concerts recognizes “The Subway”, a blues-infused tune that itemizes everything and anything passengers encounter while riding New York’s underground transit system. The song’s couplets are some of the most clever in Aziza’s entire catalog, if only because they so specifically capture the shared experience of nearly eight million New Yorkers and countless tourists. “It’s fun to ride in limousines but you learn what survival means on the subway” goes one line. Proud subway riders waved their Metro cards in time with the rhythm while Aziza soloed on her keytar and brought a bit of church to the proceedings.
During “Wrap It Up (Handle Ur Bizness)”, the sound of Aziza’s keytar morphed into a style that orbited funk and acid rock. Red Bass stepped downstage and faced off with Aziza in a duel between bass and keytar. Camera phones came out, photographers inched closer to the stage, and the crowd watched two pros consummate a powerful musical marriage between their instruments. It was an appropriately symbolic sequence, given the song’s frank discussion about safe sex. Like many of Aziza’s songs that address sociocultural themes, “Wrap It Up (Handle Ur Bizness)” conveyed a timely message without self-righteous moralizing or vacuous banalities. Indeed, the wisdom of Aziza’s lyrics on songs like “Wrap It Up” is earned from a lifetime of observations and learned lessons.
“I was Linda Williams back in the day,” Aziza stated as the show ended. “I’m the same person that I was, just a little wiser.” Between upcoming solo dates at the Blue Note in New York and Blues Alley in Washington, DC, plus her ongoing role as musical director for Rain Pryor’s one-woman show Fried Chicken and Latkes, Aziza proves that the risk of artistic reinvention is worth the creative rewards. At BAM Café, Aziza certainly made Linda Williams proud.