The beautiful symphonic jazz of Maria Mendes is gracing the airwaves once again thanks to her new album Close to Me (Justin Time Records). Featuring the compositional style of John Beasley, and the lush instrumentation of the Metropole Orkest, it’s a warm treat as the winter draws near.

At least, that’s how it presents itself, and certainly how it starts. “Há Uma Música do Povo” begins with the kind of lush strings and gentle singing that fans of Mendes would expect. Newcomers to her world might be reminded of Melody Gardot, which is certainly no bad thing. This kind of easy-going symphonic jazz is not only prevalent throughout the album, but through her discography, most notably on predecessor Innocentia.

Mendes’ singing is also to be lauded. Her voice can be at times a tad nasal in the high notes, but otherwise, it’s beautiful. Mariah Carey is often lauded for her singing range, but Mendes shows off a voice that’s just as adaptable without said versatility coming off as a gimmick. Her voice is almost another instrument in the delivery of the melody: on occasion it’s delicate and fragile, as it is in the opening bars of the opening track, but in other places it has all the warmth and depth of Ella Fitzgerald (whom I personally believe actually had the voice of an angel). An excellent example of this is the album closer “E Se Não for Fado.”

There is also plenty of versatility in the music itself. John Beasley is an accomplished musician in his own right and, bolstered by the Metropole Orkest, delivers his signature style of jazz fusion as a base from which Mendes’ voice can soar. But this is also where things start to swerve into the strange.

For the most part, Mendes works in conjunction with strings, piano, trumpet, and sax to deliver the kind of symphonic jazz that made Melody Gardot famous. And it works. It’s a beautiful treat for the ears. The music is warm and lush, coming off as an accomplished mix of Gardotian symphonic jazz and traditional Portuguese fado. The latter is a mournful, melancholic style so, in this mix, it gives emotional weight to her music that it might otherwise lack. Occasionally, Mendes segues into scat delivery, which gives this unique fusion a sprinkle of the unexpected (which, after all, is part of what jazz is all about).

But with Beasley’s style of composition, it marches through the unexpected and straight into the realm of experimental jazz fusion. And this doesn’t work all the time. Experimentation is always to be encouraged in jazz – for one thing, it’s how jazz was born. But it has to work well, otherwise it comes off as something of a mess. Take “Verdes Anos,” for example. It starts with a rumba-style rhythm line, shot through with the melancholia of fado in Mendes’ vocal line. So far so good: experimental, but it works. Sprinkles of scat singing give it a fusion flavour. But after the 1:20 mark, Mendes’ voice shoots up to a squeaked top note, under which a piano supports the interjections of various solo instruments, and as Mendes “oohs and aahs” her way through the rest of the song, the instruments become ever more chaotic. The music briefly settles back into the style in which it started, with Maria scatting over the top, but it all comes (literally) crashing down at the end as the song fades out.

To give him credit, Beasley steers the experimental sections well enough that in execution and, more importantly, isolation they’re perfectly fine. But it feels like they don’t belong with Mendes’ style. To cement this, the next song “Barco Negro” is a perfect example of the mix of fado and symphonic jazz that forms the majority of Mendes’ back catalogue. Adapted from an original fado song by Amália Rodrigues released in 1954, it’s gorgeous. If the whole album was like this, we’d be discussing it in terms of Album of the Year. But the experimentation so seriously undermines it that the album comes off as awkward at best.

That the superb mix of fado and symphonic jazz is let down by the experimental sections is a shame. Both halves of the mix are, in isolation, great. But they just don’t gel well enough to work properly as a whole. If you have the patience for it, the album is worth a try, but might ultimately be one for die-hard Mendes fans only.

Close To Me Track Listing:

01 Há Uma Musica do Povo
02. Tudo Isto É Fado
03. Dança do Amor
04. Verdes Anos
05. Barco Negro
06. Fado da Invejosa
07. Foi Deus
08. Hermetos Fado for Maria
09. Tempo Emotivo
10. Asas Fechadas
11. E Se Não for Fado

Run Time: 50 minutes
Release Date: October 25, 2019
Record Label: Justin Time


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