We can always use more pop artists that speak with their charisma and their confidence than with their producer credits. Davina and the Vagabonds is an intensely stripped down group. They channel jazz, but they are rarely classic about it. The sound is jazz if it was propelled by a bold frontwoman with a cheeky persona and a sensational voice when she allows it to go untethered. The tunes rarely have over two or three sounds going on at any one time. There is usually a trumpet. There is usually a little drum beat which is there for pacekeeping purposes solely (excluding the back half of the absolutely stunning “You Must Be Losing Your Mind”). Lastly, there is the voice of Davina Sowers who has this brazen vocal approach that can be equal parts Norah Jones and Billie Holiday. She gets time to shine, which is not typical for jazz. “Heavenly Day” is a solo performance by Sowers, and it is a calming damnation of the indulgences of jazz.
Agreeably, there are a lot of artists now doing a classier sound with a rougher-around-the-edges production. Ingrid Michaelson is the hipster’s answer to Liz Phair. Davina and the Vagabonds add a bit more trumpet and a lot less synthesizer, making the group an almost peerless indie jazz collective. They aren’t pandering to any trends or they would throw the trumpet away and replace it with Avicci or the lead singer of Maroon 5. They are a modern jazz act on their own terms, and the results are sombering, as can be heard in “Away from Me.” Other songs try for an eccentric quality, such as “I Try to Be Good” with its trumpeting solo. Others are on a whole other planet entirely. “Throw It to the Wolves for Love” is straight out of a 40’s soundtrack to a backroom club as fronted by Dinah Shore. In 2015, it is unfortunately relegated to a novelty song.
The group works best when they try to carve their own identity. The back-to-back of the two-minute jazz jam “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” clashes boldly with the six-minute mostly instrumental, “You Must be Losing Your Mind.” Modern jazz fans would be enthused to hear something so keenly jazz from a band that is so obviously young.
Davina and the Vagabonds sound similar to Jenny Lewis with less slick production. The group appears to be indulging in the same buffet as Regina Spektor. Snarky, sassy, and only a slightly clean sound that could use some studio polish if the artists though the songs needed it. But, everything is infused with a spirited jazz sound- something the above solo musicians somewhat lack. The key difference is that Davina and the Vagabonds are jazz. The others are only dipping their toes in, pretending they have the classic chops to be Davina and the Vagabonds.
Ryan Merkel is a cool writer guy and contributor all over the internet, from blogs on music to magazines about music to sites about playing music. He is currently founder of SunState Investing and is head editor of the music entertainment magazine, CultureTease. He has written two novels, and is currently working on a third full-length novel, surprisingly, not about music. His novel “Splatter the Noise” earned accolades for independent publishing. Be sure to check out: www.sunstateinvesting.com
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