I saw Joanna Borromeo at the State Social House in Hollywood this weekend at an A&R special show for emerging artists. Of course, she was on the show the week before so I knew what to expect, but I got more than I expected. What I got was songs from her album and a chance to really listen it. It deserves a listen from anyone who loves blues and R&B.
Borromeo is an enigma – a good one. She can make you think, cry and dance , sometimes all at once, sometimes s on different songs on a single album and sometimes in a single song. She writes and sings what is best described (and how she describes it) as alt. blues and R&B. She combines blues, rock, hip hop, gospel and jazz in a way is comfortable in a blues venue, a jazz club, a hip hop scene or a rock showcase as well as in the studio. In live performances, she centers the stage with her keyboard and wows audiences and critics with a cream- smooth voice and lively songwriting. Her recorded songs equal the live shows in intensity and wallop. Awesome is an overused word, but listening to Joanna Borromeo is exactly that – and awesome experience with an awesome talent.
It is not surprising that this album was nominated for a Juno Award as the best R&B recording in Canada and that her very first album hit the top ten on the blues, jazz, hip hop and R&B charts and won her the John Lennon Songwriting prize and top spot in the Great American Songwriting contest. And she just keeps getting better.
The nine songs on Kaleidoscope show off her full range, but draw you most deeply into her gentle voice which can warm your heart like a candle in the window or cut your jugular like a hot steel blade. Either way, you are left breathless but satisfied. Magically, she can take the minutia of life – the feel of fresh air, the shyness about asking a person to dance – and arrange it musically for universal appeal while keeping her unique style.
“Move Mountains” wakes up your ears and your jazz heart with a snare snap and free verse backed by her keyboard rhythm, the lyrics alternating between desire and threat, ricocheting from You are a mystery to me my dear…Is there something I could say/To make you come this way too Now baby don’t be lazy/or I’ll move on without you. Her top-of-the-game musicianship shows in her smooth handling of complex rhythms, jazz-laden talking verse, and t spot-on keyboard notes while she seamlessly moves through jazz, R&B and pop riffs. Her years of classical training show in how she makes it sound so easy.
Then she deftly slides into a soft and gentle love song, “No One Like You”, a cinematic paean to the right lover at the right time. Floating gently on a muted drum and her delicate piano with bass hints, even the build is modulated to turn up warmth, not heat. Borromeo’s “No One Like You” is a classic love song delivered perfectly by a master musician. She holds the mood and deepens it with “Outside”, but not about a lover; but about just being outside, free of the tasks of the coming day. The smell of flowers, the feel of air drawn in a deep breath; what more could she ever want, she asks us when Life, it seems to never let up/Even for a minute, every day I gotta get up/ I gotta go here, gotta go there/I gotta keep climbing those stairs. The cinematic writing combined with the jazz R&B fusion takes a simple idea and makes it completely universal.
Borromeo kicks up the tempo with ‘Your Shoes” an appropriately danceable rock-infused story told from the mind of a woman who wants a man to get his courage up and ask her to dance. Just come over with your good foot, baby/You know you ought to make this hour the hour that you set me free…You know I’ll wanna go again/There’s just something ‘bout your shoes. Tap your feet and ask her to dance.
She lets us take a breather with “Even If”, but the lyrics don’t let up on the emotion. I never asked you to fake your death/That was something you put on all by yourself. The slow brush drum with gently complex jazz strikes, muted bass and tinkling piano carry her not-quite sultry, not quite determined voice as she asks “where is the love?”. A classic love song done with a lyrical twist and the voice of a master of the genre.
Questioning turns to joy in “For Me” as Borromeo moves easily from jazz to R&B and back again in the song, with a pickup from electric guitar notes that accent her voice and add a rock aesthetic. Celebrating having the person in her life who is the person who cares for her, she tells us “I think I’m in heaven”. So are we and we bob our heads and soak in her voice.
“Train Ride”, probably the best-known and most instantly recognizable song on the album takes us on a journey through her introspective mind. For such a young person, Borromeo skillfully paints a diorama of her life, conjuring us a moving black and white photograph of a woman sitting alone in a fast-moving, dimly lit coach, looking out through a rain-streaked window. Now I don’t care where I am going/As long as a I go and get further from slowin follows My dreams come and gone/I don’t know how long I have been alone. But she is not alone, her songs take thousands of people with her, all together in the train car of her music.
Borromeo wisely doesn’t leave us in Pullman car, moving us out into the light as she sings “Good Times in Love” seductively embracing us with an angelic voice we have not heard previously in the album. Accented by a simple piano, she touches her toes to the sand, she sees the light in her hair. The song builds, bringing in drums and backup vocals and ramps up the piano in a final, almost operatic celebration of the good times
The good times continue with “Wide-Eyed in Your Arms”. The final song that takes full advantage of Borromeo’s jazz range and facility with lyrics and sophisticated arrangements. Carried exuberantly by her piano and a curious but apt slap drum 4/4 beat, she lifts us up and even giggles as she shifts to a keyboard solo that finishes the song and the album with a fade, leaving you softly vibrating.
Joanna Borromeo is part of the Canadian invasion that has been ongoing since I was buying 45’s at a record store, following in the footsteps of artists like Celine Deon, Brian Adams, Leonard Cohen, Maggie Szabo and Bif Naked. Kaleidoscope places her firmly in the top of the jazz R&B end of that invasion. She is in LA now for two and a half months to write songs for a new album, which I suspect will broaden her position as she utilizes her range and comfort with many genres. But until that time, Kaleidoscope is a must for any serious jazz and R&B fan and a delicious dessert for all of us.
Available from http://www.joannaborromeo.com/music/, bandcamp and iTunes