Free of self-help bromides, Junkyard Jewel is a stunning, spirited, and soulful release by Maya Azucena.
On the cover of Junkyard Jewel, Maya Azucena sits with thick, green vines painted on her caramel skin. Though tropical fauna surrounds her, a weathered brick wall stands behind the flowers nestled in her Afro. The contrast between lush greenery and urban grittiness is a visual reference to the album title. Maya Azucena's songs reflect that dichotomy. Tales of self-empowerment in the face adversity are the thrust of Junkyard Jewel. On "Warriors", she asserts, "I'm a bird with wings too great/ I soar above your hate." Thankfully free of self-help bromides that mar artists of a similar orientation, Azucena is fierce, sometimes ferocious, but always fearless, in her words. Junkyard Jewel bursts at the seams with soul, not just the style of music (of which there's plenty) but that intangible force -– call it the "It" factor. Maya Azucena brings lots of "It" to her debut album for Purpose Records.
Junkyard Jewel is more than album, it's an experience of the coolest kind. Maya Azucena's poetry rolls off her tongue and into the listener's ears like a bird gliding into its nest. From the first few seconds of "Down, Down", the smoldering opener, Maya Azucena captivates with her stories, adding percussion and acoustic guitar to shape the songs into a definable, yet still free-flowing, form. Her performance fuses together elements of folk, spoken-word, and gospel music. It's a cliché to say that Maya Azucena transcends any one particular genre on this album... but she does.
What separates Junkyard Jewel from other albums that dip into the same well is the less-is-more approach to production. There's not a false, synthesized note to be found and, remarkably, no keyboards. Producer Andre Fratto doesn't bury the instruments or Maya's voice with other superfluous tools. Guitars and drums don't appear for the sake of having guitars or drums on a track. Every musical element is purposeful. Unifying all of these elements is Maya's voice, an instrument of elastic properties. She raps, she scats, she soars, and shouts. Just check out her consonant harmonies on "Wash Over" or the voltaic vocalizing that closes out "Runaway Blues". Years of honing her craft onstage have strengthened Azucena's pipes as evidenced on these and every other track on Junkyard Jewel.
At a recent standing room only gig in the East Village of New York City, the audience was introduced to the secret weapon of Junkyard Jewel -- guitarist Christian Ver Halen. Of the album's 11 tracks, he co-wrote eight with Azucena and created the memorable string arrangements on four tracks. He joined Maya that night as she imbued the room with soul and passion on "Set You Free" and "Like No Other", a pair of the album's finest numbers. Even without the other musicians, Azucena and Ver Halen's performance filled every inch of space in the room with a rich, whole sound.
Their simpatico translates extremely well to record, especially since they both had a hand in producing alongside Andre Fratto. There's an endearing earthiness on the album version of "Set You Free", a song where Azucena's musicians really shine, to say nothing of the artist herself. The song begins with Tarrah Reynold's smiling violin and Christian Ver Halen's guitar. Percussionist Ivan Kratz supports the tune with abundant laid-back grooves while Azucena alights the song when she sings elongated "Ohhh, ohh/ Yeah, yea"'s. The construction of "Set You Free" is reminiscent of musicians sitting in a circle, joining in one at a time. "Like No Other", similarly, commences with a sparse duo. This time Ver Halen and Katz duet on an ambrosial melody before Azucena adds her voice to the mix. "Your love is like gold/ Making new what is old," she sings, gently caressing each word. The song's buoyant, flowing rhythm progresses into a funkified refrain -- "higher"-- sung by Azucena and Joanne Williams. It's a thrilling call-and-response interlude that could easily continue on for another three minutes and not be any less scintillating.
Those seeking authentic, spirited music will find plenty to enjoy on Junkyard Jewel. It announces that Maya Azucena is a gifted singer and songwriter who has an identifiable stamp in a market saturated by sound-alikes. The album also indicates what she can do with another songwriter's material: the one track that Azucena did not have a hand in writing is her cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". Though a majority of listeners hold the definitive version by Jeff Buckley closely in their mind, Azucena wrings new resonance out of Cohen's words. It fits in perfectly with the album's other moments of introspection as she ushers the listener through different emotional centers. For those six minutes, Azucena owns the song and touches your soul. Maybe that's what "It" is all about.