Mellani Day and Dazed: Chill Songs for Hot Times
There is a Chinese curse that states, "May you live in interesting times." That says it all for the last half of 2006. It's a shell-shocked world of uncertainty, with chaos abroad and tension at home (or vice versa depending on where you live). Our media culture is chock full of sensational images and narratives of conflict and violence. From gangsta rap to heavy metal to FOX News, it is an endless litany of explosions, dark fantasies, and common criminals made into primordial demons. In this climate the most radical of responses that an artist can make is to create harmonious, gently real, or uplifting music. Mellani Day and Dazed are such artists.
Their EP Shy to Sure and the follow-up CD Mostly True ()
are heavily based on a mixture of jazz, calypso-reggae, pop and blues. Picking up from where Joni Mitchell collapsed in her derailed-by-death collaboration with Charles Mingus, Ms. Day takes a singer-songwriter's approach to lyrics and a jazz player's rooted but boundary breaking approach to music. From the opening cut, the bar bluesy "If They Only Knew" (),
to the final song, the country/Irish folk influenced "True Love (A Wedding Song)" (),
Ms. Day and her group convey a range of emotions without screaming, melodramatic whispering, or maudlin sentimentality. They also avoid the pu pu platter approach to music (here's jazz, now here's blues, and now a reggae song), and contrived homogenization (great for yogurt, bad for music).
This musical odyssey had an unlikely beginning. "Even though I grew up in LA, my first musical memories are of mountain folk songs, country tunes and old hymns," she said. "My Dad was from Virginia and my Mom from Missouri, and both came from musical families."
"My dad used to sit in the corner of the living room every night and play his guitar and sing – lots of Johnny Cash and cowboy and Elvis Presley songs -- and my mom would start singing with him and then when the mood hit, all us sisters would join in as well. I took piano lessons from the age of four, so sometimes I would play along. I would be practicing and playing a song like, "Happy Days Are Here Again" and my dad would join in and then my mom. On my dad's side of the family things were sincerely like the soundtrack of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou." When I saw that movie, it was like going home! Mom's side of the family was more cosmopolitan. I have an old cassette tape recording of my Granddad and his brothers singing a bunch of old pop songs (like "The Sheik of Arabie"), playing guitar and with full harmonies. Mom was also the one who made sure we got the church music side. We sang all the old hymns in choirs and shows."
Music was clearly introduced to Ms. Day as a spiritual and healing force, as well as something satisfying and fun. Those who love and appreciate one form of music have a tendency to love and appreciate other forms of music, which is how artists and listeners develop a passion for it.
"I'm embarrassed to say I used to love the Monkees, and Sonny and Cher. When I was in junior high, I used to listen to the radio and use a cassette tape recorder to create my own mix tapes. Songs like, "Have You Seen Her?" and "I've Got a Brand New Pair of Roller-Skates" stick out in my mind. But when I was playing piano, I wore out a couple books of boogie-woogie and a Reader's Digest Book of classic pop and show tunes. I would play those songs over and over. My sister and I would fight over who got the Elton John song book. In the end, I let it go to her."
In addition to this musical nurturing at home, Ms. Day sang in school groups and church choirs. But what was her first real band like? "My own first band would have to be while I lived in Germany. I went to Germany the first time right after I graduated from high school. I stayed with a German family for a month-long exchange student program. I fell in love with it. Then my husband and I went back on our honeymoon for two weeks. We decided to get jobs and stay for a couple of years. One of the places I worked at was an International University in Heidelberg where I formed a band called The Administration Blues Band. It started as a surprise joke for the students, but we continued it. We sang at student events, and even in a street festival in downtown Heidelberg one year, to represent the university."
When Ms. Day and her husband left Germany for Denver, CO., she wrote songs and started singing with a cover band. "I originally thought I would be a songwriter and pitch my songs to others. But instead of doing short demos with other singers and musicians, I chose to do a 3-song EP with the best people I could find to work with. I felt that I could use the recording as a demo to pitch the songs, but also as a product to sell at shows. Along the way, each song on that first project, Shy to Sure, had some success in its own right. And it received some amazing reviews. So that gave me the confidence to continue, start my own band Dazed, and record a full-length project, Mostly True."
Shy to Sure is more genre-rooted, with "Losin'," a down and dirty rhythm and blues, and the title song, a hard swingin' jazz tune that Anita O' Day would've loved. The third cut, "Jade to Sapphire," hints at Ms. Day's jazz adventurism and early interest in show tunes. Mostly True, which features keyboardist and co-producer Eric Gunnison and Dazed, is a more unified effort. The opening cut, "If They Only Knew," contrasts Ms. Day's smooth jazz vocal style with a blues that takes a while to catch fire and then burns with blazing guitar by Jamie Krutz, and the muscular might of bassist Michael Willis and Keith Whiting on drums.
The recipe of smooth melodies and explosive instrumental music was followed by Motown and other old schools of rock and pop with results that are self-evident, yet missing almost completely from today's music. Like great music of the classic rock and soul era, there is meaning to the singing: "They're angry, and they're fightin' away / Planning pointless battles, don't know what they're fightin' for / Girls next door and presidents shake their fist against the Lord and his anointed one / They say, "Take your rules and regulations, we won't be bound by obligation to your so called Son."
These words are not as intense as those once sung by jazz great Abbey Lincoln, but they resonate today. "Something to Swear By" is the type of jazz ballad that could have been played thirty years ago and could be played thirty years from now. It has the type of structure that old soul and classic jazz has: a memorable melody, harmonies that take you on an emotional journey, and emotionally satisfying sentiments expressed by a great voice. In other words, it's a great song and Ms. Day sells the hell out of it. It starts with ethereal keyboards and percussion, then she sings what it's all about: "You're wondering about me, You've been this close before / You wanna' know, is this the real thing, If not you're out the door / Well rest your mind you have arrived, And I'll make you believe."
Her intro gives way to a rock groove. The chord changes move over unexpected hills to resolve in the valley, carrying the listener on a gently exciting ride. Like all good pop, the music and lyrics are merged perfectly. The musicianship, once again, elevates the song above the mundane. Mr. Gunnison plays a fluid solo, with melodic runs and counter chords that burst from the song's emotive underpinning. Percussionist Sky Canyon solos on the rich and rarely heard vibraphone with the type of soul vibraphonist Roy Ayers is famous for.
[Kirby] When did you start playing and studying jazz? What drew you to this music?
[Mellani Day] I am naturally drawn to the spirit of jazz. I approach it as a kind of rebel music that doesn't conform and doesn't necessarily have to repeat itself and I love that. I feel like that defines me – I get bored quickly. I have learned a lot from working with Eric Gunnison and the musicians in my band. I think I acquired the taste for vocal jazz from my early piano-learning years, where I played the old show tunes and pop songs that are now considered vocal jazz standards.
"It is such a complex art, and I am relatively new to it in practice. When non jazz industry people hear my stuff they say oh yeah, that's jazz, but when jazz people hear it, they say oh that's pop. So I'm kind of in this twilight zone. I've had a couple jazz experts tell me that my music has a wider audience than jazz. Hard core jazz lovers will reject my music outright, but then the next listener says, "It's so jazzy!" My distribution company put me in the "jazz vocal" category (and I threw in "pop" – you know – for that wider audience), so I'm trying to learn how to live with it!"
Going back to the 1940s when they used songs by popular music composers such as Rogers and Hart and the Gershwin Brothers, Ira and George, jazz musicians have always taken pop songs and reinvented them. In that tradition Ms. Day does a rendition of "I Want a New Drug" ()
. Any great interpreter of songs, whether it's Al Green turning the Beatles' corn ball "I Want to Hold Your Hand" into a love cry of desperate passion, or Johnny Cash turning "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails into the flip side of "My Way," finds another side, another emotional realm, in said song. Here, Day and Daze achieve the same thing. Her moody jazz blues version of the New Wave, get-wrecked bar anthem by Huey Lewis and the News reveals the joy and sadness of a person separated by minutes or years from a special source of love. Like the man said, love is the drug.
[Kirby] What do you consider to be the jazz element in your music, which has elements of rock and pop?
[Mellani Day] That's an "on-target" question relating to what I am trying to understand about jazz and my music myself. For me, the jazz element is that, while the basic melody structure and lyrics stay within a recognizable song form, the presentation can, and probably will, be slightly changed each time, especially in the solo sections. I choose to have jazz musicians playing my tunes so that they will infuse more complex phasing into each song. Although jazz builds on the past, by default it is an ever-changing form.
"If you have a musical makeup, if you are a creator of new music, then you find yourself absorbing music from wherever it hits you, and reproducing it in your own creations. The world music, Latin and reggae I've heard; the classical music and opera I heard in my 13.5 years in Germany; my early music influences and the pop and rock of my adult years, are all in my musical makeup. I appreciate music of all kinds for all my varying moods. I love native rhythms. I love unusual instruments. I love complex sounds and clever lyrics and stories. All of this I dream to incorporate into my music. Yet vocal jazz pulls me closer into pop because of the verse, chorus/hook song form. The jazz element comes out when you play live with musicians."
[Kirby] Name your top five songs and why.
[Mellani Day] Right now I am fascinated by Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary Machine." When I first heard it, I thought it was some old school jazz diva. What a surprise when I found out it was her. Now I am a fan. The song is fresh and syncopated, and not your everyday pop. I am also very intrigued by Matisyahu. If you listen to his lyrics, here is a very spiritual man, not shy – joyfully expressing his faith. "One Woman For Me" just sticks in my head. How corny and yet how very, very sweet, uplifting and refreshing in this culture. If I were to do a jazz standard besides "Summertime," which I often sing, I would like to do "Peel Me a Grape." I love the attitude! In trying to get scat in my head, I bring out Ella Fitzgerald's "How High the Moon." She's the master and it's awe inspiring to listen to what must be at least three minutes of straight vocal athletics. "Morning Has Broken" rates high – an old hymn that Cat Stevens turned into a hit. It's spiritual and soothingly melodic.
[Kirby] What do you love about music?
[Mellani Day] It's an outlet for my creative side. If I stop for a while, I feel like there's a huge hole in my life. I love music because it connects with me and seems like it wants to draw me in. Sometimes it has a life of its own. Every culture has it. It can be freely shared. It can be therapeutic and healing. It can reflect a variety of emotions. It's transportable. It can change lives.
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