Album review…Kelly Powers, “The Kelly Powers Project” (self-produced, 2012)

Writing personalized music for a close-knit ensemble of friends, pianist Kelly Nagata Powers draws inspiration from a diverse range of musical influences on her second album, The Kelly Powers Project, demonstrating facility and prowess across multiple musical genres. Featuring intelligent, chromatic, hard-bop compositions, Powers’s album contains a highly varied set of her originals, rounded out by a few, freshly arranged pop covers. Exemplifying the phrase “labor of love,” Powers draws inspiration and energy from her friends on this album including: each one of her sidemen, former classmates from graduate studies in jazz performance at the Manhattan School of Music; the talented visual artist Angela Costanzo, whose original album artwork offers listeners a powerful ancillary text to consider; and her former teacher, legendary Memphis jazz piano giant, Harold Mabern, who serves as the album’s executive producer.

The Kelly Powers Project, self-produced, 2012. Personnel: Kelly Powers, piano, voice; Vito Chiavuzzo, alto saxophone; Thomas Heflin, trumpet, flugelhorn; Josh Paris, bass; Austin Walker, drums. Tracks: Jazmine’s Mood; New York City; Suckerpunch; Joga; The Kite; Like a Star; Greatest Love of All; Stargaze. Recorded February 2012 at Park West Studios, Brooklyn, New York.

The blues “Jazmine’s Mood, a fun romp with a leaping, dissonant melody, opens the album, introducing listeners to the band through a series of solos across the bandstand. Powers’s first piano solo swings confidently over the whole range of the keyboard, demonstrating a rich vocabulary in her improvisation: soulful blues licks, hard bop punctuations, superimposed harmonic arpeggios, and even the influences of Mabern and another former teacher, the late Jackie McLean. Saxophonist Vito Chiavuzzo’s first solo develops through a clear, narrative arc characterized by long, harmonically rich bebop lines.

“New York City” shows off Powers’s compositional skills through a complicated, chromatic harmonic progression over which the band experiments in their improvisations. An excellent bass solo by Josh Paris is a surprise early in the track, which has totally different vibe from first tune. His improvisation is a well-balanced mix of melodic motives and navigating the changes. Powers’s piano solo is contrapuntal and exploratory, developing organically, and again showing a diverse range of improvisational skills. The outro vamp is one of album’s highlights, in which Austin Walker shines on a wide-ranging and intricate drum solo that building in intensity, showing dexterity and a penchant for motivic development. The following track, “Suckerpunch,” features another intricate melody behind a steady, ostinato groove. The rhythm section excels here in their accompanying roles: Powers’s responsive comping drives Chiavuzzo’s sax solo forward, while Paris shows similar sensitivity and support for trumpeter Thomas Heflin, who stretches out on this track, rewarding listeners with the album’s first extended demonstration of his skills.

The first cover of the album, “Joga,” by Icelandic superstar Björk, takes the Project in a different direction. A hushed and contemplative setting of the melody, augmented by Paris’s arco (bowed) playing, showcases Powers’s talents as an ensemble writer and arranger. With a keen ear for instrumental timbres, Powers scores parts for Chiavuzzo and Heflin that are expertly executed. Walker performs solidly, driving the track’s changes in texture and feel. Two short, improvised vignettes by Powers and Chiavuzzo precede a more extended piano solo that floats over the rhythm section’s groove that builds as the track progresses, augmented towards the end by a return of horn backgrounds. Björk remains a formative influence for Powers, whose quiet intensity at the piano is on full display here.

Like “New York City,” “The Kite,” is another creative original composition with solid ensemble writing and counterpoint, including a call and response section that Powers scored in the track. The solo section shifts to an acoustic funk groove: Powers goes first, demonstrating a slightly more insistent, energetic, driving, and double-handed playing that builds in intensity. The piano performance carries the track, which features some of the best keyboard work of the entire album. Changing gears completely, she follows with “Like a Star,” another cover by vocalist Corinne Bailey Rae. Here Powers adds her voice – singing through a simple treatment of the song with a breathy and relaxed voice. Walker and Paris drive a quiet but unwavering soul groove that is just quietly implied at times. Once again featuring artful background writing for the horns, Powers demonstrates her sensitive musicality throughout, including a very personal moment at end of track, where the ensemble drops out, allowing listeners to enjoy the pianist accompanying her own voice.

The album’s final cover is a tribute to vocalist Whitney Houston: the album was recorded just after pop star’s passing, and Powers included “The Greatest Love of All” as an homage to the pop and R&B diva. Arranged as a gentle bossa nova with the horns sharing the melodic duties, the track builds in intensity via Chiavuzzo’s alto solo. Both his and Powers solo that follows fold in new motives while remaining playfully faithful to the song’s melody. The ensemble treats the song reverently but lightly, celebrating the affirming and joyful message of Houston’s hit single.

The album closes with “Stargaze,” another strong composition by Powers that, like the first track, serves as a platform for the group’s improvisations and provides the album with a pleasant symmetry, book-ended in Powers’s compositional prowess elaborated and enriched by a solid ensemble. Chiavuzzo performs another deft alto solo, combining harmonic and melodic proficiencies with rhythmic dissonances and syncopations, while Heflin follows with his best trumpet solo of album. Powers’s final solo of the album shows yet another facet of her playing, tending toward extended sequences with plenty of harmonic and rhythmic adventure built in. The album closes appropriately with an assured re-statement of one of Powers’s finest melodies from the Project.

The Kelly Powers Project is one of many little known, under-publicized, self-produced, and crowd-funded albums deserving of more attentive appreciation by audiences and critics alike. These albums are recorded by the musical majority—those compelled to experiment and sacrifice by the force of their artistic visions and creative drive often in spite of the unrelenting grind of “making it.” What makes Powers stand out among the countless, talented hoards is the integrity and diverse creativity of her art: she writes for and makes music with her friends, drawing inspiration from personal relationships and reaching out to her audience with sincerity to establish new ones. With its honest and straightforward approach that strides confidently into the realm of pop and R&B, The Kelly Powers Project promises to bring in new listeners and audiences from across multiple genres, while every listener—jazz fans included—will revel in the high levels of musicianship that Powers shows at the keyboard and in her compositions.

[Disclaimer: The artist whose work is reviewed here is a personal acquaintance of the writer.]

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