Blue Alert

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Anjani Thomas has been writing and recording since the 1980s after graduating from the Berklee College of Music. A skilled jazz pianist, her break came from her mentor, Leonard Cohen (who she has been working with since 1984), when she sang on "Hallelujah" on Cohen's 1985 Various Positions LP and was such an integral part of his 2004 recording, Dear Heather, where she sang, played keyboards, and co-wrote two of the songs. On her Blue Alert Columbia debut, Thomas co-wrote and/or finished previous fragments of his unpublished poems, lyrics from songs, and pieces in his notebooks and journals. He produced the album. The result is a sultry, smoky, spiritual record, where flesh and heart are not separate entities but intertwine and whisper together. The record begins with a soft yet pronounced exhale and a piano chord by Thomas, and she sings, "There's perfume burning in the air/Bits of beauty everywhere/Shrapnel flying/Soldier hit the dirt/She comes so close you feel her then/She tells you no/And no again/Your lip is cut/On the edge of her pleated skirt/Blue alert." It's a song of desire run amok and the disappointment of that desire thwarted: "It's just another night I guess/Another night of nakedness/You even touch yourself/You're such a flirt...."

This is torch singing on an entirely new level. Her piano playing is carved in Bill Evans harmonics, and the melodic invention that comes simultaneously from George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal, and even Vince Guaraldi. Yes, the music is inherently sexy, but that's only the surface. Skin is the gross vehicle that is easily witnessed and categorized; spirit is the house it comes from. In "Innermost Door," with a an easy, skeletal blues frame, she brings home the real grain and hope of heartbreak. How many singers can get away with "I must go back to the place it began/To the place where I was a woman/And you were a man/If you come with me/I'll never begin...." Right, this is a journey; it goes deeper and deeper still. There is no straight line -- this music is the place where, as the old Portuguese proverb states, "God writes straight with crooked lines." Sex, sin, redemption, love, revelation, regret, gratitude, and the coming together and breaking apart of human relations as the spirit grows or shrinks or hides are emboldened to endure and transform according to circumstance because nothing is coincidence.

The beautifully spare instrumentation on this album is a wonder. On "Half the Perfect World" she plays a beautiful jazz figure, gently swinging, on the classical guitar, underscoring a most beautiful song of memory and loss as absorbed in the present. In "Blue Alert" there is a baritone saxophone; on the country-tinged lounge tune "Never Got to Love You" Thomas' piano waltz is accompanied by the lap steel of ace studio musician Greg Leisz and Danny Frankel's soft touch on the drum kit. There are strings on "Crazy to Love You" and a clarinet and electric keyboards on the amazing "Thanks for the Dance," one of the most startling songs on this set -- and which also closes it. The sparse arrangements and instrumentation are important because Thomas' voice is an instrument in itself. It goes beyond the words and the melodies that carry it to the fore; it's a voice from the belly, not so much deep as full and in its disciplined way a primal spirit voice.

"The Mist," another waltz, sounds like a Celtic folk song sung from the face of the hills into the sea: "As the mist leaves no scar/On the dark green hill/So my body leaves no scar/On you, nor ever will/As the many nights endure/Without a moon or star/So we will endure/When one is gone and far...." Finally, there is "Thanks for the Dance," an old-timey lounge tune. It feels like closing time on love, but love endures and is acknowledged as something so much deeper that cannot be understood in the moment: "And there's nothing to do/But to wonder if you/Are as hopeless as me/And as decent/We're joined in the spirit/Joined at the hip/Joined in the panic/Wondering if/We've come to some sort/Of agreement...." The agreement, the partnership between Thomas and Cohen, is thus the blossoming of a brave artist who dares to work with one of the greatest artists of the last and current century and establish a voice unmistakably her own: profound, unfettered, sensual, spiritual, and wonderfully, poetically impure -- in other words, both elegant and tattered, spiritually drunken. Above all it is a truly honest voice that articulates the heart's sometimes rough, often confounding, and always cryptic language, with elegance and a grace that only reveals the terrible and beautiful truth of itself in the emptiness of waking at three a.m. alone. Highly recommended.

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