Thursday, June 19, 2014

Surrender to Brenda Earle

Brenda Earle Stokes, who hails from Sarnia Ontario, Canada, is a singer/songwriter/pianist who has just issued her 3rd CD. "Right About Now" (Magenta Label Group) comes 5 years after "Song For A New Day" and is produced by Matt Pierson.  Her companions for the 12-song journey include bassist Matt Aronoff, drummer Jordan Perlson and guitarist Steve Cardenas plus the one person who has appeared on all her CDs, tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm.

What stands out on the first several times through the program is her emotionally rich voice - she "owns" these songs, (6 of which are her own compositions), inhabiting the lyrics, making the experiences deeply personal yet universal.  One can not miss the wistful, hopeful, joy she discovers in Peter Townsend's "Let My Open The Door" (with a pleasing, muscular, solo from Frahm, releasing his inner King Curtis).  Can't miss the sassiness she bring to Joe Jackson's "Got The Time" or the solid swing of the rhythm section, an excitement that elicits strong solos from Ms. Stokes and Cardenas  She adds her poetic lyrics to Egberto Gismonti's  "Agua E Vinho", a love song her words turn to "Water Into Wine".  Cardenas's soft finger-picked acoustic guitar and Perlson's quiet percussion frame the vocal and Frahm's expressive tenor.  Does Ms. Stokes ever have fun on "Baiao Em Minha Cabeca (Dance - or Rhythm - in my Head)", her wordless vocal leaping happily over the percussion, pushing the tenor to dance as well. Her voice glides and soars through "(Meant) For You"; based on a melody by saxophonist Dick Oatts, the words pay tribute to a life companion. Yet, there is a bluesy melancholy that suffuses the tenor lines.  

You should also pay attention to her fine piano work how its supports her vocals, builds the songs, and fits into the mix.  The rich chordal accompaniment on her original "The Letters on the Pages" suggests Carole King, supporting the stirring guitar solo. MS. Stokes moves to Fender Rhodes for a soulful reading of Ron Sexsmith's "Right About Now", with the solid drum work and Cardenas's blues-drenched guitar licks.  Reminiscent of both early Bill Withers and Crowded House (particularly "Don't Dream It's Over"), her chords give the song even more depth.  The program opens with soulful piano chords (a la Aretha on "...Natural Woman") leading into "It's High Time", a "call for" personal freedom and turning the focus back onto the self.  Perlson's drums underscore the vocal, Frahm translate the words into a forceful statement, and the piano chords push the work forward.

Then, there is "She Sings". Yes, Ms. Stokes does just that but she also blends her wordless vocal with her piano, with Frahm's hardy tenor, and with the interactive rhythm section.  It's the longest track (7:19) on the disk, speaking to how integrated the band is (honestly, this is a collaboration and not just a singer with a rhythm section plus soloist) - one can't help but hear the trust, support and respect the musicians have for the material and each other.

"Right About Now" is a journey, one well-worth taking. Brenda Earle Stokes does not paint pretty pictures but honest portraits of souls in motion as they take life one day at a time (the songs with wordless vocals display her "soul in motion").  The production of Matt Pierson puts both the voice and (usually) the piano in the middle of the spectrum while making sure the band can be clearly heard.  No clutter, just sincere music and musicality. Lose yourself in this recording and you should find joy.  For more information, go to

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