Imani Uzuri’s Unique Sound Travels Everywhere

by delarue

There’s a point on Imani Uzuri’s new album where the cello is playing a gypsy horn line over a tango beat as a sitar rings and pings in the background and an otherworldly choir of Balkan gospel voices go up, and up, and up in a swirling, fiery crescendo. That track is called Meet Me at the Station – it starts as a pensive country blues song and expands from there. It’s one of many high points on the aptly titled Gypsy Diaries, due out June 5; Uzuri plays the album release show at 7 on June 1 at Joe’s Pub. As of today, $15 advance tickets are still available but probably going fast.

You could file what Uzuri does under soul music, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A world traveler and musical omnivore, she blends global styles seamlessly but impactfully. Given the instrumentation on the album – Christian Ver Halen’s acoustic guitar and bass, Todd Isler’s versatile percussion, Neel Murgai’s sitar (!), Kaoru Watanabe’s flute, Tarrah Reynolds’ violin and Marika Hughes’ cello – the songs often build to an unexpected, epic grandeur. Uzuri has a powerful yet nuanced contralto voice that occasionally will reach stratospheric heights, with an ecstatic, gospel-fueled intensity. As dark as the music can be here, her message is one of liberation and self-empowerment. And it’s not prosaic and obtuse like Ani DiFranco, or empty and cliched like Erykah Badu: what Uzuri is after is transcendence. The album begins with a tone poem of sorts that fuses vintage soul with qawwali and ends with a rustic, 19th century style a-cappella field holler. In between there’s acoustic rock, Brazilian, Mediterranean, funk and a lot of blues and soul styles. Several of the songs, particularly the casually funky acoustic flute tune I Sing the Blues work a vamp up to a hypnotic, insistent mantra that Uzuri hammers home, again and again.

The third track, Winter Song grows from a Greek string riff to pensive fingerpicked guitar blues, a lush anthemic chorus lit up by the sitar and finally a sweeping, apprehensive yet ultimately triumphant coda. Likewise, the most rock-oriented track here, Whisperings (We Are One) hits a soaring crescendo with Uzuri’s voice going full force against a south Indian-tinged melody. And the ba-BUMP beat of Gathering, a modern update on a field holler, eventually builds to a mighty wallop as the strings rise with it. There’s also the funky, bossa-inflected flute tune You Know You Love Me, the gorgeously brooding, epic Soul Still Sings, a couple of songs that start sparsely and build to more of Uzuri’s signature mantra vocal riffs, and the dreamy Indian-flavored lullaby I’m Ready. Eclectic enough for you?