Elizabeth Shepherd

The Signal

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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek

In 2012, Canadian pianist, songwriter, and composer Elizabeth Shepherd received a Juno nomination for Best Vocal Jazz Album for Rewind, her bright, wonderfully reimagined collection of standards from the worlds of jazz, pop, cabaret, and French chanson. According to Shepherd, she chose Rewind's standards -- which had always been meaningful presences in her world -- because she was pregnant, and the songs were the only things not changing in and around her. Two years on, The Signal is a rhythmic and textural shift. This profoundly feminist sociopolitical offering actively engages aesthetics of neo-soul, funk, and hip-hop (musics that have been referred to indirectly on her records since 2008), while remaining firmly rooted in her trademark meld of off-center jazz and pop. Her Rhodes piano is ever present, while a Moog makes select appearances -- all percussion and basslines are organic. Opener "Willow," with its funky crystalline Rhodes and rolling breaks, features the first of two appearances by Benin's master guitarist Lionel Loueke, who also lends a chant to its vocal. "What's Happening" -- with her longstanding trio featuring bassist Scott Kemp and drummer Colin Kingsmore -- has a keyboard that sounds more like a nasty clavinet, but it works to cement the infectious spiny riff. "B.T. Cotton" commences with a sample of Lead Belly playing and talking about picking cotton as Kemp's bass vamp introduces a fingerpopping groove before Shepherd begins singing (subtly and with stacked harmonies) about the brutal conditions in India's textile industry. A tight steel pan solo from Marc Mosca tops it off, creating the condition for a compulsive second listen. "Lion's Den," with its spacy Rhodes, Moog, reverbed drums, and Kevin Turcotte's killer trumpet break, belies its harrowing lyric about forced marriage and rape in Africa. "This" opens with ambient sound washes, a pronounced bassline atop Loueke's spectral guitar playing in the margin. The brushed snares and whispering Rhodes spiral around the tender, haunting melody before it ramps up toward the guitarist's colorful solo. "On Our Way" lets drummer Larnell Lewis use a cracking hip-hop tom-tom; Shepherd's chords fall forward and back across her vocal as Kemp's punchy bass vamp roils in the middle. "Another Day" addresses Trayvon Martin's killing; it commences as a ballad before picking up the tempo and tension in grasp-and-release fashion with a monstrous souled-out groove at its heart. It is an excellent illustration of topical songwriting in the 21st century -- displaying its poignancy framed inside music that attracts not by dynamic force but through a colorful imagination, yet speaks directly. The set closes with "Baby Steps," a funky, midtempo jam with a sunny, layered trumpet break and handclaps that accent its irresistible backbeat. The Signal is an excellent return for Shepherd; it's hip, bracing, sophisticated, and accessible. It will resonate deeply with fans of Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, and José James.

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