Brianna Thomas Takes Her Soulful Sound to the Next Level
Buoyed by an endorsement from Will Friedwald, the guy who wrote the book on jazz singing, Brianna Thomas’ career was in full swing while she was still in college. But she’s always been more than a purist, elegant jazz singer. Anybody who’s ever heard her sing blues or gospel knows how badass, and funny, she can be. Her new album Everybody Knows – streaming at Spotify – is a real change of pace for her, in terms of the jazz, which is heavy on the ballads in addition to other styles beyond the idiom. It’s been a dark year; this is a pretty dark record, and Thomas’ voice will haunt you long after it’s over.
Conun Pappas pulls the sustain bar all the way out on the Rhodes, hovering above guitarist Marvin Sewell’s gritty, circling funk riffage in the album’s opening number, Since I Fell For You. Thomas’ impassioned, insistent vocals match the bite of his bluesmetal solo midway through.
“How deep can a hole in your soul go, how far back can you look to find a clue?” she ponders in How Much Forgiveness, a slowly crescendoing pop ballad, bassist Ryan Berg tiptoeing over Pappas’ shimmery piano chords. Those two players edge their way into the noir-tinged It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie with a similar terseness, Thomas working a mysterious, aching ambience up to a tantalizingly allusive scatting solo; Sewell’s austere, darkly bluesy lines fill out the picture.
She keeps the nocturnal vibe going with a slow, latin soul-tinged, rising and falling take of My Foolish Heart. Once again, Pappas’ starry chords provide a vivid backdrop, building to Thomas’ throaty crescendo.
Fueled by the shifting rhythms of drummer Kyle Poole and percussionist Fernando Saci along with Thomas’ gritty insistence, the band reinvent the old 60s Gerry & the Pacemakers hit Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying as a bustling, defiant anthem. By contrast, I Belong to You is a lusciously Lynchian latin noir mood piece that Sewell hits out of the park with his grim chromatics.
It Had to Be You gets remade as 70s boudoir soul, fueled by Pappas’ twinkly Rhodes and Sewell’s purist Memphis riffs and fills. The hokum blues My Stove’s in Good Condition is irresistibly fun: Sewell goes deep into his hometown Chicago blues riffbag , and the bandleader turns it into what could be the album’s title track. Or maybe one of a pair.
Sewell gets ghostly with his slide in the dirgey take of Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues, a lauching pad for Thomas’ mix of nuance and full-throttle intensity. It’s a shock that more singers haven’t covered the Nina Simone classic Mississippi Goddamn, a protest song which is sadly just as relevant in 2020 as it was during the Civil Rights era. This group’s shapeshifting, crushingly cynical remake, part wah funk, part chilling oldschool soul, will rip your face off.
They close the record on an upbeat note with an impassioned, blues-infused, Allen Toussaint-esque version of The More I See You. History may judge this a career-defining album by one of this era’s most dynamic voices in jazz, and a lot of other styles too.