In his 2018 book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, Nate Chinen makes a case for the vitality of jazz music in the today’s world and argues vehemently against its alleged calcification or demise. The genre is alive and well and thrives in a number of different forms and subgenres.
Although they didn’t make it into that book, New York-based jazz/pop/soul combo GADADU certainly fit comfortably among the artists Chinen writes about. Led by songwriters Hannah Selin (vocals, violin) and Nicki Adams (vocals, piano), GADADU’s sophomore effort, Outer Song (the long-awaited follow-up to their 2015 debut, And I See Night), is full of moody textures and unique arrangements, highlighted by an off-the-beaten-path style of instrumentation. There are elements of standard pop craft in the music’s DNA, but it’s twisted enough to separate it from the Top 40 pack.
Recorded with the full band (including trumpeter Patrick Adams, bassist Daniel Stein and drummer Arthur Vint) at the Bunker Studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Selin and Adams recorded overdubs in repurposed spaces like a subway platform and a college gymnasium. The result is a collection of eight songs that manage to sound both dreamy and edgy while maintaining classic song structure at its core.
Opening track “The Lion” begins ethereally with assistance from Rhythm Method string quartet (who also appear on two other songs) but eventually the full band kicks in with memorable trumpet lines and electric piano. In keeping with the somewhat offbeat nature of the music, a prepared piano takes a solo at about the halfway mark with the strings offering sympathetic accompaniment. It’s a lot to take in for those first six minutes of Outer Song, but GADADU’s style is warm, inviting, and never boring.
While Selin and Adams both wrote impressive songs for Outer Song, their one cover is beautifully conceived. Whether intentional or not, their version of the Beatles’ “Julia” seems to be a nod to a kindred spirit, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, who’s been known to cover Beatles songs extensively on albums and in concert. It’s also refreshing to hear a band cover a deep White Album cut as opposed to a more popular standard. The band takes Lennon’s deeply personal, introverted folk song about his late mother and adds rich sonic layers. Trumpet, keyboards, a thick backbeat and Selin’s dreamy voice reinvent the song while retaining its inherent warmth.
As good as “Julia” is, it’s a joy to hear GADADU attack their own compositions – in addition to a wealth of musical talent, the band houses two unique and imaginative songwriters. They seem perfectly comfortable shifting gears, often within the space of a single song. “Exquisite Corpse” contains dramatic time signature shifts and some extended soloing, giving the song an almost progressive rock feel. “Makeshift Constellations” has plucking and soaring strings, a galloping beat, and a gentle solo section featuring some impressively jazzy piano from Adams – all within the span of about five minutes.
GADADU is also content to just be plain weird, with odd pieces like “Train Blues”, which includes some idiosyncratic trumpet soloing gently landing into a spacey, hazy set piece led by Selin’s intoxicating vocals. They also thrive on taking their time, letting a song move through different sections and exploring the song’s space without feeling a need to do anything conventionally. In lesser hands, this may be a recipe for disaster – or at the very least come off as unfocused – but GADADU pull it off, song after song. The closer, “Bay Songs”, begins as an unmoored instrumental ballad before veering off into a gentle duet between Selin and Adams. “You know me,” they sing. “You give me space to breathe.” Pizzicato strings float alongside them. “Can this be / Can this be all we need?” Listening to Outer Song, it’s easy to get lost in GADADU’s distinct musical colors. It may not be all you need, but it definitely belongs on your playlist.