The cooperative band, Tillery, is a delicate, beautiful, breathtaking thing. It is comprised of three utterly distinctive female voices that share a sensibility but insist on their individuality. The result is a rope woven from three fibers, a single thing that winds together differences into something whole.
The veteran of the group is singer and guitarist Rebecca Martin, whose music on its own sweeps in old-fashioned song craft, folk simplicity, and soulful jazz subtlety. Martin brings songs to cooperative like “God is in the Details”, which floats on a bed of acoustic guitar, luminous synth, and oohs, and it paints a picture of a woman who seems on verge of something impossible — leaving her mate, dong something new, being alone like she used to be. The song is a poem, open and mysterious, and the three voices each take different lines, but the primary impression is that of dawn breaking in a single wave of color, of one voice with different possible timbres.
Gretchen Parlato has one of the most unique timbres in jazz singing. Her “Magnus” starts on a set of closely harmonized nonsense syllables (“Ah-wee, Ah-woh, Ah-wah, Ah-why-o-wee”) and then a hummed vocal lick that locks in with handclaps and chest slaps as the ground rhythm of a sweet love story — of which the “Ah-wee” is the theme song. It is a beautiful spinning top, a wheel within a wheel of a song, and it sparkles in our ears for three minutes and then sizzles into thin air.
The third member of Tillery is Becca Stevens, who might just be the “it girl” of jazz singing right now — a truly dazzling writer of pop/jazz songs whose voice seems like it’s coming straight out of your imagination. Her “I Asked” has been recorded by her own band and by the jazz-funk superband Snarky Puppy, but the version here is the song’s most perfect form. With instrumental backing of only finger snaps, body percussion, and ukulele, this arrangement puts an emphasis on the sensual “Mmm-hmmm”s that are the tune’s heartbeat. The story of “I Asked” is of a woman asking her man “What do you need?” and hearing “Whatever makes you happy, darlin’” — after which she realizes that this answer is what she needs to give herself in tough times. The refrain “That’s all I need” relates to the arrangement here: all this band needs is itself — three voices, a few fingers and some passion. It’s a symphony.
The great strength of Tillery is how great it sounds with very very little instrumental backing and with no schmaltz, no overbearing pop lushness. Not that the ladies here don’t like pop. They cover Prince’s “Take Me With U” as their first song, and when they sing “We want each other oh so much / Why must we play this game?” it seems like they’re explaining that all they need is themselves in a living room with a few guitars — no need for the pop game. A couple tracks then bring in bass (Larry Grenadier, Martin’s husband) and drums (Parlato’s husband Mark Guiliana), but it is minimal and literally in the family — as if they decided to let the guys play a little just because they were around. Father John Misty’s “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” gets the tiniest hint of brushes and some bass. “Sweetheart” is the most produced song, with a backbeat and some keyboard orchestration, but barely.
Most of the album is a delicate thing, a miniature, a piece of origami that dazzles you not with bombast but with the cleverness of every little fold, of every overlap of voices and blend of pastel colors. “Push Me Away” is by the Jacksons, but this arrangement makes all that melody all the more incredible for setting it so sparely. It feels like a crystal that hangs in midair, supported by invisible strings. “I Wanna Fly So Free” starts with the tweeting of some birds, but it is otherwise entirely a cappella, a marvel buzzing high voices and bouncing low notes.
The most astonishing track, though, is the title track. Stevens, again, is rerecording this tune, which has previously appeared on her own album, with drums, accordion, electric bass, and so on. It’s terrific there, with Stevens overdubbing harmony vocals to get a clear, unified sound. But here — with the shimmer of Martin’s vinegar tone and the pinch of Parlato’s slightly nasal croon setting up magically sympathetic vibrations — the song rises like a lonely and exceptional piece of art.
This song, and really all of the gorgeous songs on this record, reaches not for popularity but for art. And by “art” I don’t mean something chilly and rarefied, something to be hidden in a musical museum. These finely calibrated songs are art in this sense: they reach across the divide between the singer and the listener with something common to us all. The words, rhythms, and melodies find little places inside us and tickle them. And they make you feel stuff.
“Tillery” ends with the line “May we shout and may we sing / Blessed thaw, O holy spring”. And the answer is utterly affirmative. Tillery is about the power of voices and voices together, the joy in singing together — simply, but also with skill and subtlety. It’s a partnership and a document of friendship that shimmers and warms you.