33 Records [Release date 03.04.20]
‘Chameleon’ is Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion’s 6th and best release so far. It’s a superbly crafted contemporary blues album with a dozen self penned track and a hidden bonus, full of musical diversity, imaginative arrangements, stellar playing and Zoe’s expressive vocals.
As the album title suggests it’s full of subtle changing musical colours.
There’s also the significant presence of the Ian Ellis (tenor sax) and Patrick Hayes (trombone) horn section, which doesn’t just fatten the sound and add occasional stabs, but is an integral part of some of Rob Koral’s best arrangements.
And it’s those arrangements that are the building blocks for a hugely enjoyable album built on bluesy grooves, occasional riff-driven rock, boogie, blues ballads, Latino grooves, fusion, shuffles and funk.
There’s also an unexpected jazzy coda with a defining version of Nina Simone’s ‘Lover Man’ which they used to play years ago and shows just how far the band’s own material had progressed since then.
While the aim is always to support the vocal and the primacy of the song, Koral consistently illuminates the album’s rhythmic qualities, but also knows when to hold back and emphasize space and re-focus on the voice, as on the gentle organ-led ‘Hello Old Friend’.
It all makes for a bright and uplifting album rather than the dull homogeneity that blights so many current contemporary blues related albums.
They open with an impressive Steely Dan flavoured muscular groove called ‘Life Goes On’, which doesn’t actually deliver the expected significant solo – though Koral does briefly solo deep in the mix – but relies on Zoe’s vocal to carry the song to its conclusion.
It’s also a template for the drummer Paul Robinson’s relentless drive, as he lays down the perfect foundation for a band that revels in Koral’s adventurous spirit and Schwarz’s vocal versatility.
Robinson’s power and precision reminds me of the late John Hiseman, though his ability to groove and swing – which is evident throughout this album – suggest a more versatile player.
The Steely Dan feel is replicated deep into the album on the autobiographical funk of ‘I Cry Just To Think Of It’, as the pulsating horns match Robinson’s energy levels.
Then there’s the pivotal role of Zoe Schwarz’s vocal, as she becomes the musical personification of the album title, with versatile phrasing and passionate performances, albeit she just steps back from over-singing on the animated ‘Amazon Woman’.
Zoe digs deep for lyrical veracity and finds an essential emotional connection on the deep ballad ‘I’ll Be There For you’, on which her clarity of diction, pitch and tonality serves her well.
She’s equally good on the brush stroked restraint of ‘Tell Me’, on which Pete Whittaker doubles on a gently voiced electric piano and organ. The judicious use of a triangle brings another sonic colour to the arrangement, before Koral rounds things off with a gossamer-thin melodic guitar solo.
Schwarz is positively sultry on the lascivious shuffle ‘Come Lay With Me’, as she sings: “The mood has hit me. I know where this is leading, come lay with me.”
She also aims for an Eartha Kitt style growl that doesn’t quite make it, but the arrangement remains steadfast and she rises again. Robinson plays from deep in the pocket to lock the band into a sumptuous groove as everything swings languidly, while the horns add accented squalls. Absolutely magic .
The band sets out its stall early with the swaggering riff-driven bluster of ‘Better Days’. It’s a perfect example of what they do so well, even if it’s heavier and completely different from anything they’ve done before.
The double horn and organ riff and subtle extras such as the harmony vocal on the 2nd verse perfectly frames one of Schwarz’s grittier vocals. The horns mesh and the sudden mid-number scat vocal brings dynamic contrast, while Rob’s richly toned guitar break finishes with a touch of exquisite wah wah: “All at sea, hopelessly adrift, and desperately waiting for the tides to shift, waiting for you to send me a sign, cast adrift no land’s in sight. I remember better days.”
They veer into a rumba feel on ‘If I Could Be With You’, notable for a close-to-the-mic vocal on another subtle piece full of sparking percussion and organ fills, as Zoe explores her poetic bent: “I would solve a cryptogram, and I’d write an epigram. I really should.”
The band jams when the moment allows, but always stay true to the material. Listen for example, to the powerful big band shuffle of ‘Give Me The Key To Your Heart’ which finds room for Pete Whittaker’s Jimmy Smith style organ break and feverish horn stabs.
The album’s essential flow means everything feels in place, even when they veer into unfamiliar musical avenues such as on the tightly arranged, stop-time reggae of ‘I Hope To See The Day.’
‘Chameleon’ is a vibrant album. It bristles with energy, sparkling musicianship, real artistic endeavour and proves that blues can still be an innovative musical force. ****½
Review by Pete Feentra
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