Future Soul Star Jalen N’Gonda Channels the Spirit of Stars Past at Lincoln Center

by delarue

On one hand, there’s absolutely nothing original about what Jalen N’Gonda does. On the other, if this was 1967, he would be a major star in the world of soul music. As his tireless, methodical set at Lincoln Center Thursday night proved, he has an encyclopedic grasp of vintage 60s and 70s Stax/Volt and Motown riffs, he’s an understatedly strong singer, a gifted guitarist, capable pianist and also a hell of a tunesmith. He’ll always have a paying gig somewhere, playing his own material.

Born in Maryland of Zambian heritage and now based in Liverpool, N’Gonda played solo for more than an hour, varying his vocals from an allusive tenor to the occasional jump into falsetto. As the show went on, it was easy to imagine a brass section punching in behind him, maybe a smoky baritone sax accenting a slinky bass/drums groove. N’Gonda obviously has experience fronting good bands.

The night’s best song was Easy Street, a swaying, sunny, jangly number that would have been a strong tune in the Curtis Mayfield catalog. From there N’Gonda went into insistent minor-key reggae with I Guess That Makes Me a Loser and followed that with a doo-wop tinged anthem set to lingering jazz chords: it was hardly the only place in the set where Smokey Robinson’s influence could be felt.

N’Gonda opened Lucky Love with a bouncy blues bassline, then took the song in a jaunty mid-60s Carnaby Street pop direction. He switched to piano for the world premiere of his new ballad When You Belong to Me, building out of an anxious, lingering verse to a catchy chorus in a late-60s Marvin Gaye vein. From there N’ Gonda took a step in the direction of vintage Bacharach-style balladry with The More I See Your Face and then a more theatrical tangent  with Love Don’t Live Here, which brought to mind both David Bowie and Al Green.

N’Gonda made dancing Jackson Five-ish funk out of the riff from Blondie’s One Way or Another, hit a brooding Little Milton-style guitar shuffle groove, went deep into the blues and eventually evoked Gil Scott Heron more than once. In an age where every other band seems to want to rebrand themselves as the next Lake Street Dive, where any rich Long Island lawyer can pull some random, mopey beardo singer-songwriter off the tiny stage at Rockwood Music Hall, rechristen him as a blue-eyed soul crooner, throw a band of mercenaries behind him and send them all on tour at respectable midsize venues across the country, N’Gonda is a desperately needed breath of fresh air. Authenticity is a slippery concept, but if anybody has it, it’s this guy. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of him on this side of the pond.

The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd Street is tomorrow, Feb 8 at 7:30 PM with singer Imani Uzuri and her mashup of vintage soul and many global styles; get there early to make sure you get a seat.