Singer-songwriter-keyboardist Jarrod Lawson, originally from Portland, Oregon has just released his second album Be the Change (Dome Records). Peter Jones writes.
I remember the first time I heard Take 6 on the radio in 1988 as I was driving my car. Stunned to hear vocal jazz so gorgeously polished, with such bold use of harmony, I had to pull in to the side of the road until the track was over. Historically Take 6 were, of course, just the latest and most gifted practitioners in a long American tradition that dates back at least as far as the Boswell Sisters and continued in popularity throughout World War II and beyond, with the likes of the Mills Brothers, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and The Manhattan Transfer.
Hearing the song Universal Chord from Jarrod Lawson’s new album Be the Change had much the same effect as Take 6 did all those years ago, and it’s just as good, if not better.
Primarily influenced by Stevie Wonder and D’Angelo, Lawson is usually considered an R&B or neo-soul artist, but he studied jazz for three years, and Be the Change is packed full of bold and complex musical strokes that lift it beyond genre. His dense and multi-layered vocal harmonies, funky feel and jazz chord progressions bear comparison with our own Jacob Collier. All those who hear Lawson find themselves scrabbling to identify his antecedents – among them Marvin Gaye, Donnie Hathaway, Meshell Ndegeocello, Cameo, Michael Jackson, Erykah Badu, Prince, Robert Glasper… it’s a long list.
Six years have passed since his rapturously-received debut album, so these tracks certainly haven’t been rushed. Au contraire, each one of them has been lovingly burnished to a deep-down sheen of perfection. “I don’t want to push myself past the point of comfort,” says Jarrod from his home in Portland, Oregon. “If I wake up in the morning and think, oh man, I want to lay down some Rhodes parts on that today, I let the inspiration take the lead.”
Jarrod does nearly all the singing and much of the playing himself. Having initially focused on drums, his rhythmic chops feature strongly in his work. He’s also a highly accomplished pianist. “I played all the keyboards, played bass on a few tracks. Some guitar as well. I always do a lot of the incidental percussion. And then all the voices, of course.” In fact, his voice is the most prominent instrument on the album, and he pushes its possibilities into new territory. He inserts vocal fills here and there that might conventionally be played on a horn. Sometimes he uses the massed harmonies like soli passages in big band jazz. They swoop and glide in arrangements that also rival big bands in their variety and level of detail.
I wondered how many vocal tracks there might be on any given tune. “Sometimes I may have two or three lead vocals, if they’re overlapping, then maybe six-part harmony – doubled – sometimes even more than that, y’know, a sort of echoing, call-and-response thing.” (So that’s a minimum of 14.) He even manages to multi-layer the voices while maintaining vibrato at a consistent rate on every layer. That’s pretty hard to do. And unusually, the lyrics are as thoughtful and finely crafted as the music.
Jarrod is joined on Be the Change by percussion legend Sammy Figueroa, who contacted him a few years back, saying he wanted to work with him. “That began a relationship. We essentially became brothers. I will certainly continue to work with him in the future.” After working on the songs with Figueroa at home, he was ready to record. “I did some of the recording in a commercial studio – the basic tracks with Sammy and the rest of my quintet – Cory Limuaco (drums), Chris Friesen (bass), and Trent Baarspul (guitar). We recorded together live to get some basic foundational tracks. And then I took those to my home studio and then piddled around for… as long as it takes, y’know?”
We went through the album tune by tune: the title track begins with a passage that seemingly bears no relation to the rest of the song. “I don’t know quite where that came from. Early on, after I’d met Sammy and invited him over to my house here in Portland, and we hung out for three or four days in my studio. I’d borrowed some congas from my friend, and set up some nice microphones, and we were in there just jamming, and came up with that on the fly, and it sounded like a really cool intro.” But the really cool intro became a casualty when he was asked to produce a radio edit, forcing him to cut nearly two minutes. Luckily it’s still there on the album version.
The Prince-like I’ll Be Your Radio begins with the highly compressed sound of a small radio speaker, before opening out its full dynamic and tonal range. He is joined on this track by Moonchild vocalist Amber Navran, with her characteristic wide vibrato style. “She’s working with so many different artists. Every time I turn around I see her guesting on somebody’s album or single. She’s certainly one of the most sought-after artists right now.” Moonchild’s Andris Mattson and Max Bryk add some deft flugelhorn and clarinet respectively here.
The ecstatic Universal Chord has been receiving airplay of late, with its heavily reverbed Rhodes, arpeggiated vocal and the ching of a tiny cymbal that’s quiet but cuts right through. “Sammy’s got this little Tibetan bell on a string, and he just taps it. It’s got that pure, pristine… almost like a sine wave type of tone.” This is also the only song ever written that uses the word pteridophytes, the botanical classification for ferns. “I spent a few years of my life studying plants. I studied horticulture. Always been really interested in plants and trees.” His preparation for a life in music has also included tuning pianos and breaking rocks – as a stonemason rather than a convict, it has to be said.
The richly uplifting vibe of How Long is a little odd for a song that laments inequality. It begins with flutes, clarinet and bass clarinet played by Hans Teuber. The vocal, I commented, is remarkably reminiscent of Sting. Jarrod flinches imperceptibly at the comparison. “I’ve heard that several times now, particularly where I first come in. I love Sting, huge fan, but it certainly was not a conscious decision to sound like him… I stacked the vocals in a triad, very much as they do in a Cuban rhumba, but singing English lyrics – that was very much Sammy’s idea.” I ask about the line “The trogon will fly backwards.” It turns out that a trogon is a bird, a quetzal. “The quetzal is the national bird of Cuba. When Sammy was here at my house, the original idea for this song was to do a traditional rhumba. That’s not what we ended up doing exactly, because what we did was far slower. So it was loosely inspired by that. At that time we had been talking about taking a trip to Cuba, Sammy and I, so Cuba was very much on my mind, and as I was writing these lyrics, I thought it would be cool to throw a nod to Cuba in that way.”
The intro to Soul Symphony has a slow broken beat, which for Jarrod harkens back to some of the tracks on D’Angelo’s Voodoo album from 2001. “There’s very little sub-divisions happening between the beats, with just a ton of space in there, just holding down the scaffolding of the beat. But then on moving from the A section to the chorus, I threw in a whole bunch of percussion parts to create some 12/8 subdivisions.” The song ends with another fabulous vocal harmony, gradually stacking the layers of a chord. In the lyric, there’s a sort-of apology to his father who, when Jarrod was a small child, ran a recording studio in Redwood City, California, with musicians constantly coming and going. “I was always dreaming, a classic ADD kid. My attention was constantly being dragged away. He’d be telling me some things, and my attention would be totally zoned out, thinking usually about music. I think my dad appreciated those lyrics! But it was also the reason that I was artistically driven in the direction I was. The world was built by dreamers, I feel. What would this world be without dreamers, thinking outside the box?”
Be the Change is out now on Dome Records.
LINK: Universal Chord on video