It's unusual to find a contemporary jazz vocalist who doesn't dabble in sweet covers of old standards, which is why I'm writing about Raya Yarbrough. Her self-titled debut cannot be described as jazz alone, but more of a fusion of gospel, blues, and jazz with plenty of instrumental explorations and vocal obstacle courses in the mix. The second song on the album - "You're So Bad For Me" - strums away with a reggae groove behind Raya's precise and tormented vocals. She sings: "You're so bad for me, but the thought of you keeps me company...", and you can hear her dilemma and her personal resignation to broken-heartedness. This song is far from anything I've heard in the Jazz genre in a long time, and it's only the tip of the proverbial Raya Yarbrough iceberg.
"Early Autumn" makes orchestration a jazz-friendly pursuit, while "Lord Knows I Would" (video below) is a heavy blues ballad with jazz improvisation. Raya's earthy vocals soar on top of the steady groove, but in places she almost wails like the woman on the Pink Floyd track, "The Great Gig In The Sky". "Vice and Vanity" starts off with gentle guitar meanderings that sound vaguely Latin, and Raya's voice follows the guitar in concentric and melodic circles. "'Round We Go" borders on the Regina Spektor-esque, as Raya gets a little violent, let's say masochistic, with the piano. Then there's "Better Days" which finishes the album with a jaunty, almost schizophrenic piano clash and a funky guitar.
As with any musical exploration, Raya's album has highs and lows. Not every song showcases Raya's voice in its most pleasant form. In fact, on some songs Yarbrough sounds like an altogether different person. What would music, or life for that matter be like without a little variation and a spectrum of sounds to choose from? Personally, I think I would be incredibly bored, so I'm happy that people like Raya Yarbrough are around to mix up the mundane and reach for the spectacular.