There’s something quite evocative about listening to jazz vocalists who venture beyond the familiar. Perhaps because the nature of contemporary Jazz embraces all kinds of musical sound worlds. In particular, the vocal jazz world has seen a rise in duo collaborations of albums, yielding some wonderfully creative and inspired sounds. Polish- Japanese singer Yumi Ito is no stranger to this. Her acclaimed 2020 release Stardust Crystals portrayed the artist as a neo-classical-art-pop-meets-jazz composer, writing delicate songs full of texture and colour. One year on, she has teamed up with rising-star guitarist Szymon Mika to deliver ‘Ekual: a set of 7 compositions which blend an abundance of influences into one finely tuned album.
Following in the footsteps of artists like Gretchen Parlato, Theo Bleckman and, of course, Joni Mitchell, they create a sound world which is hard to categorise. There are ofcourse jazz nuances inherent in the compositional part of the album, but the whole album is so much more than that . Much like the duo albums we’ve seen of late ( Jo Harrop with Fergus Mccredie, Georgia Mancio and Alan Broadbent ) the jazz genre merely serves as a stepping stone for which the duo use to create an impressive array of sounds, textures and inspired melodies.
As a whole, the sound of the album highlights the often haunting chords we recognise in chamber folk music, gentle harmonics of Mika’s guitar strings Ito’s vocals, and improvised soundscapes which feel very familiar and quite wonderfully stray away from the often virtuosic jazz improvisations we’re used to hearing. Both artists meet at points musically to deliver a story centered around human themes of beauty, youthful desire and fear, to the more societal topics of climate change, politics and negligence. A wildly welcome change to the one-themed approach!
The title track, “Minha Flor” (‘my flower’ in Portuguese) sings of vulnerability and fear of demarcation. But it also reminds us that our inner flower lies safe in the depth of our personal sanctuary, celebrating the joys of nature, of the body, of beauty and sexuality. By contrast, the plucked chords and wide vocal melodies of “Float and Drift” recall the icy season when nights are long and thoughts are dark. It’s remarkable how each artist literally sound as if they change their ‘sound’ with each track. The major shift to a more folky sound in Float and Drift for instance was completely unexpected and stunning. ” My Restless Mind “, probably the more ‘singer-songwriter’ sound of Ito sounds seamless and serene in stark contrast to the track’s title; perhaps a play on what one would expect an artist to feel when creating music. The masterful plucking and harmonic interplay of Mika create the perfect finish to allow the listener’s mind to wander. “Data Beta”, at the centre of the album, highlights the true essence of “Ekual” as the pair imagine an alternative universe devoid of the poisoned climate in today’s politics, society, and nature. The vocal percussiveness is especially outstanding , as it feels like it’s ‘battling’ against the haunting rhythmic frenzy of the guitar . A slight ( and appreciated nod) similarity to another duo pair, none other than Ralph Towner and Maria Pia De Vito. ” Longing” sees Ito delve into the spoken word, quite fitting with harmonics of Mika that sounds as ernst and ‘longing’ as the lyrics :” we have lost ourselves between those wild rocks // i don’t know where my head is / as long as you are lingering around “. It almost sounds as if they reimagined a coming of age novel in a contemporary setting. “Running” feels remarkably different in sound and style, once again seeing Ito changer her self into an almost Imogen Heap meets Yun-Sun Hua sound ( how on earth she does that is beyond me). Lyrics that are simple , and familiar, reminding us that life is too precious, followed by whistling against Mika’s hugely masterful sonic tapestry of one, single guitar. The final track of the album is truly such a delight, if only for the cheeky title : the marriage of both of the artists ‘s names ” Yumika “. The track feels at once rehearsed, with parts that feel like one suite going into the next, than improvised , channeling the Norma Winstone risque vocal scat. A track I’d want to hear live, just like the entire album.
“Ekual” by Singer Yumi Ito and guitarist Szymon Mika is out October 28 . It is an album that deserves international recognition for it’s masterful and evocative delivery, honest story telling. A start of a wonderful collaboration, and certainly not the last of their work together.