Emma-Jean Thackray


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Yellow Review

by Thom Jurek

Yellow is the auspicious debut album by English musical polymath Emma-Jean Thackray. A multi-instrumentalist who can get what she needs out of virtually any instrument, she is also a singer, composer, producer, arranger, and DJ. Since issuing the Walrus EP in 2016, Thackray has been quietly developing an expansive, holistic approach to music-making that melds jazz, electronic dance music -- particularly house and broken beat -- funk, hip-hop, spiritual soul, Afrobeat, samba, and even modern classical harmony in a deliberately accessible way. Thackray told an interviewer that "Everything I release is based around the mantra, 'music to move the mind, move the body, move the soul.'" Yellow does all that and more. Her intention was to make a record that attempts to simulate "a life-changing psychedelic experience" using a consciously Taoist approach to musical and lyrical balance. She is joined by her longtime quartet -- ace drummer Dougal Taylor, electric and acoustic pianist Lyle Barton, and tuba player Ben Kelly -- and a host of notable collaborators over 14 tracks.

A droning electric piano and alternately whispering and crashing cymbals introduce a spacy feel into opener "Mercury." They are appended by a three-note, circular bass pattern, punctuated by floating Rhodes and synths that usher in syncopated drumming, modal brass, and propulsive polyrhythms, all tuned to groove. The influences of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Alice Coltrane's Universal Consciousness appear simultaneously as more layers of instrumentation appear, and the band begins chanting in a delightfully unsanctimonious way. It's a gorgeous setup for "Say Something" that weds a Roy Ayers brand of spiritual funk to Midwestern house music as Thackray sings "Open your eyes/Before you open your mouth..." atop a ticking ride cymbal. The beats kick in amid tasty Rhodes flourishes, while her chart orchestrates proggy and post-bop interludes among roiling snare breaks, and the jam evolves into a wildly sophisticated dancefloor anthem. "Venus" is a delicious exercise in syncopated rhythm, soaring five-part vocal harmonies, and keyboard vamps. The far too brief "Green Funk" weds hip, woozy George Clinton-esque vocal and horn tropes to the swagger and swing of Sun Ra's "Where Pathways Meet." "Sun" offers a seamless meld of driving jazz-funk à la Herbie Hancock in the early 1980s and the spiritual soul of early Rotary Connection. "Golden Green" joins airy R&B to atmospheric layers of brass, snare, and a hi-hat vamp, as keyboards smoothly blend hip-hop and post-bop. "Spectre" threads Rhodes, muted drums, and electric guitars in opening the stargate for gorgeous interplay between reeds, brass, a vocal chorus, and Thackray's singing. She makes no attempt to disguise the many influences she employs on Yellow; instead, she combines them in a startlingly original approach to harmony, rhythm, and production. The end result is vast and ambitious yet deliberately welcoming. Its many sounds and rhythms greet listeners wherever they are and compel them to invest in an altogether wondrous sonic journey for body, mind, and soul.

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