When you hear your first Garaj Mahal note, leading into an innovative fusion of funky jazz with a tasty world music flare, all other thoughts leave your mind as the music takes you on an unforgettable voyage. Fans return to experience the band again and again because they know they will always hear something new and progressive from four first-class musicians. Featuring guitar and sitar virtuoso Fareed Haque, world-renowned bass master and educator Kai Eckhardt, Garaj Mahal combines a century of musical experience to create a sound that's always new, freshly infused with a wide spectrum of musical expression, and always smoking hot. Touring extensively since their formation in 2000, Garaj Mahal continues to earn critical acclaim and a growing fanbase thanks to their ability to deliver serious "shut-up-and-listen" grooves while simultaneously bringing the dance floor alive. Their collective musical experience allows them to constantly push the envelope of composition and improvisation. Garaj Mahal's sound – a convergence of jazz-style improvisation, mystical Middle-Eastern atmospheres, and danceable American funk - attracts music lovers from all parts of the spectrum and creates a profoundly unique experience. Each band member dedicates every drop of his education, history, and life-long passion for music to their audience every time they step on stage. The band member's virtuosity is no surprise when you look at even a few of the amazing artists they've performed and/or recorded with over the years, including Dizzy Gillespie, John McLaughlin, Sting, Cassandra Wilson, Dave Holland, Bela Fleck, Chick Corea, Steve Smith, Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer, Les Claypool, Trey Anastasio, Umphrey's McGee, MMW, Steve Kimock, and Michael Manring. Garaj Mahal's output is the result of years spent honing their musical relationship on the road and following the band’s return from an extended hiatus, Garaj is already accumulating rave reviews around the country.
You'd be forgiven for previously assuming that José James was a man with something to prove. There was that decade he spent reshaping jazz with the genre-blurring verve of a crate-digging beat guru. And that time he declared his jazz career was over, ditched the bands, and became a solo R&B star. And then there were the last couple years he spent living in Bill Withers' shoes -- recording and touring that legendary songbook for the Lean On Me project, a feat as brazen as they come. Now, well, it's not that James is out of mountains to climb, but sometimes you gotta stop to consider the one you've already got under your feet. Thus, the satin-voiced songwriter's latest is No Beginning No End 2, a sequel to his 2013 album that resurrects the bold eclecticism we first fell in love with, while taking us on a journey through both celebration and introspection.
"I have to give Bill credit," says James. "Touring as a four-piece, I got to feel how transformative it is to dig into music with a real band. I think he led me back to that high-level singer-songwriter material -- stuff that's hooky and funky and with jazz running through it -- that's joyful without being corny. That was the hallmark of No Beginning No End, mixed with that New York hip-hop element. After the tour, I wrote a thing on Instagram saying I was thinking about No Beginning No End 2 and people went insane. They wrote thousands of comments about how the first one changed their life. I don't sit around and think 'my work is so important' so that was kinda nice."
Of course, things are a little different this time around. For one, while the prequel was James' Blue Note debut, this is his first set of new music for his own label/collective Rainbow Blonde Records. Secondly, the album is chock-full of collaborators who are auteurs in their own right -- Laura Mvula, Aloe Blacc, Ledisi, Erik Truffaz, and Hindi Zahra, to name a few -- appearing in unexpected sonic contexts. Thirdly, with the backing of a wildly good band held down by rhythm sections in Los Angeles and Brooklyn (befitting Rainbow Blonde's bicoastal status) the songs are warmer and more defined than ever, balancing classic songwriting against immersive vibe.
For James, all of these pieces are related, and speak to a constellation of small but vibrant artist communities in constant communication. "I hope people see this as an update not of my career, but the entire scene," he says. "If somebody told me two years ago I'd be running my own label with my friends, having my own sessions, and singing hard bop anthems while sipping red wine with Laura Mvula in London, I'd be like, 'Nah, that's crazy.' But we're trying to connect the dots on a global level and that's sort of the whole concept: no beginning, no end, no boundaries."
When Swedish singer/songwriter Alice Boman emerged in late 2013, it was with an EP consisting of demos that she never intended for public consumption. After she sent them to a studio with the aim of giving them a professional makeover, the recordings made their way to the Adrian label, which wanted to release her eerily sweet, soft-spoken keyboard ruminations exactly as they were. The result was the six-track Skisser ("sketches"). Following a second EP, she makes her long-brewing full-length debut with 2020's Dream On. With outside producers involved including Patrik Berger (Charli XCX, Robyn, Lana Del Rey), the album's textures are more intricate and balanced than before, and vocal takes have improved. From a big-picture perspective, however, it's a clarification of a sound that's still remarkably intimate and gauzy in nature. The album opens with the melancholy "Wish We Had More Time," setting the tone for a set of yearning, consoling tracks with titles like "Everybody Hurts," "It's OK, It's Alright," and "The More I Cry." The latter adopts a vintage vocal pop, immersing Boman's delicate, pining delivery ("Everything reminds me of you"), sustained organ chords, and a 6/8 meter in ghostly reverb. Elsewhere, the hushed "Who Knows" features muted horns and relatively robust backing vocals alongside arpeggiated piano as the songwriter enumerates her fears, among them "I am scared of dying/But most of all I am scared of living never knowing love." Dream On closes with "Mississippi," a short, spare, home-recorded acoustic entry about being stuck between the past and the future but nevertheless anticipating forward motion. The track would seem to disintegrate into silence more than end but for the clatter of equipment in the final seconds (likely removing her guitar). More than its tunes or even its sound design, Boman's wispy voice and heavy-hearted pensiveness are likely to stick with listeners after the album ends.