YahZarah. I say it slowly, so people can understand, when they ask me what's blasting out of the CD player in the van. It's not a group, its not an instrument, it's a female vocalist who's just released her debut album, Hear Me, on a new local label called Keo Music.
OK, maybe she is an instrument. Her voice is like that. Yah, born Dana Williams, grew up in D.C. and attended the prestigious Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts, but she's also a Triangle homegirl, by way of N.C. Central University and their illustrious music program. Which means that we're in the front row to witness her career stretch and unfold, like a modern dance intro.
Hear Me hits you off with an eclectic funk-soul-jazz melange. The flavors are somewhat subtle at first, but deepen, strengthen with each listen, as you steep yourself in YahZarah's steez ... as she has steeped herself in her culture. Yeah, much ado is made over her association with Badu (with whom she's toured as a backup singer). And you can detect an influence or two, particularly when her lyrics turn conversational. But YahZarah's style is all her own. Bassist and executive producer Chip Shearin, tight in his own right as evidenced by Hear Me's lush and varied production, is absolutely effusive in describing her voice on the liner notes. That type of build-up has you braced to hear some ol' theatrics: You know the runs, the over-sung showtime-at-the-Apollo "look at me, I can sang" type vibe typified by many of today's microwave divas. YahZarah is different though. You can hear the skills, but she's cool, restrained with her "instrument," knowing when to play it jazzy, soulful, torchy, even operatic. Her unique phrasing is all over the place, at turns deep and earthy, then high and airy, as she playfully hits notes from oblique angles. "Love is," a lazy summer cool-out ballad, is type sublime, the centerpiece of an impressive album. Shearin and Co. provide a fluid watercolor wash of sultry strings and muted trumpet that YahZarah splashes with vocal colors, warm and enveloping. The result evokes comparison to '70s Norman Connors/Phyllis Hyman collabs, or at the least, slept-on Tom Browne B-sides from the early '80s. Yah simmers and shimmers on "Natural," a be-bop tinged mid-tempo joint, while the smooth and infectious "Black Star" stays in heavy rotation in my mind even after the CD has stopped playing. The all-out party cut, "Friday," is hot to death--my 7-year-old son (who has a good ear) is always telling me to play Track 14 again. And again. For drum & bass heads, "Guillotine" is a departure from the acoustic ambience of some of the other tracks, and a nice change up, while "Feel Me," which she recorded in one take, is another burner. While some of the interludes on Hear Me seem a bit out of place, the only thing that I truly dislike is the sense of foreboding that I get when I hear something that's really good, and then listen to the bulk of what blows up in today's music industry. I guess I can cross my fingers and hope YahZarah sneaks in the back door behind Erykah, Jill Scott and India Arie.