By Carol Banks Weber, AXS
Jackie Gage’s debut jazz album comes with its own theme of unrequited love woven in the nine, highly melodic, sensual, and inventive songs of her own life, fantasy, and dream.
Siren Songs comes out on March 15 in an official CD release party at Yoshi’s in Oakland, Calif. All nine of the torch songs trace the thin lines of love, misplaced devotion, and deception, held loosely in a sleek, supple voice that seems to float out of nowhere, and yet feels as if it’s been singing inside the listener’s head during the lowest lows and the highest highs of an ongoing thrill romance.
“I based the concept of this album [on] the ancient idea of a siren; the womanly figure who lures desperate sailors into treacherous water…” Gage said last Thursday. “I chose the marimba as a focal point of this as a testament to the nautical theme. I’ve realized as well, it’s so rare to have a marimba recorded on a jazz style record! Maybe it’s because those instruments are a serious project to fit into a studio door, ha ha.”
Known in California as the “Sade of Jazz,” the now New York City-based Gage lives up to her moniker through the melodies she finds in the songs that catch her fancy, whether they’re her own true tales, or those she identifies with in the jazz standards plucked just for this album.
Without even trying, she embodies soul, easy R&B, and even classical ballet in the jazz moments she steals away. The album is pure ecstasy for those who’ve experienced the exquisite heartbreak of an idyllic, ultimately illusory love.
Gage also knows how to incorporate the right musicians on the right instruments for the right mood. Besides a core jazz quartet of experienced musicians, featuring longtime friend/pianist Timothy Wat, drummer Jason Lewis (James Moody, Boz Scaggs), bassist John Shifflett (Boz Scaggs, Kurt Elling), and percussionist Dillon Vado on those marimbas, she’s got a mini-string section dropping in at just the time (the allegorically pure and lush classical touch in “Serves Me Right” from good friend Martine Tabilio’s 2015 musical, “Club Nocturne”). The string section consists of violinists Ilana Thomas and Kristina Dutton, violist Su Buchignani, and cellist Freya Seeburger.
Joshua Washington provided the string arrangements and helped with the vocal harmony arrangements.
No musician on this new recording is extraneous. Every one serves the purpose of shedding light on the dark crevices where love, desperation, and despair reside, born of truth and consequences.
Serving as singer, co-songwriter, and producer, Gage laid down tracks at 25th Street Recording in Oakland and background vocals at the Press Recording Studio in Stockton, and then mixed at the famed Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif.
Gage found the whole experience wonderfully surreal and awesome. “What’s been powerful for me is the local power of this release, and the access to amazing people and facilities,” Gage continued. “Like, I would have never dreamed that I would set foot in Fantasy Studios, but, lo and behold, the moment to not only mix this record there, but work with Adam Muñoz (Herbie Hancock) and walk down the halls of that space was inspiring as hell. Tuck and Patti, and Leon Joyce were there while we were mixing, for instance! The camaraderie from this project has been infectious.
“Now to have a chance to release it at Yoshi’s (a dream venue for me), my Bay Area career feels like it’s coming full-circle.”
To go into the merits of every song would take several reviews from now until the album release date. However, leaving out Gage’s stunning cover of “That Old Black Magic” would be a mistake.
She opens with a spritely wordless vocal before launching straight into the warm bath of those familiar lyrics. This is a frequently covered popular standard from 1942, a bit old fashioned in tempo. But Gage churns the tempo with her modern melodic opening — think Sia’s “Elastic Heart,” but less ghastly — which cuts in and out of the lyrics as an infectious refrain, one a young girl might sing to herself on the way to a long-anticipated dance. She also seems to create two songs in one, as she superimposes her own take on the lyrics to the rhythm of her updated wordless vocals.
AXS engaged Jackie Gage a little more a few days ago, and she happily obliged.
AXS: Can you describe what you wanted for this album? Is it a mix of your favorite covers and originals?
Jackie Gage: Yes it is. The standards are the songs I grew up hearing and loving. Billie [Holiday]’s version of “Comes Love,” for instance, is a tune I always heard in the household. This has been my chance to give a new interpretation to the standards. “That Old Black Magic,” for instance, is one of the first songs I learned in my high school jazz choir, and has held a dear, youthful place in my heart, remembering the experiences of meeting new friends, having crushes on new people — and hoping they like you back — all the above. But, I’ve never heard it the straight way it was originally recorded. This is the version that has been in my head for God knows how many years.
I loved having the chance to share “Afro Blue” as well: from Robert Glasper’s rearrangement of it with Erykah Badu on Black Radio, people have been starting to hear mainstream interpretations of classic songs, imagining they are meant for popular outlets. It feels like a testament to “jazz for the new listener,” where it’s time for listeners to rediscover standards (starting from Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” to today with Kamasi Washington’s “Cherokee”). This was my nod to what the song means to me, and we totally changed it too.
For the originals, I have always been writing music as a kid, and this is the first time I’m really sharing my originals with greater audiences. I had mentioned I grew up listening to the likes of Billie Holiday, but also Sade, Dionne Warwick, Etta, and Natalie Cole were all around me as I began pursuing music. I found my sound in listening to those legendary artists.