The Baylor Project – The Journey (2017)
There are many kinds of journeys traveled over the 11 tracks of The Baylors’ The Journey, both explicit and implied. The most obvious is the project’s journey across a range of genres that Nicholas Payton calls Black American Music or BAM, from jazz to gospel and R&B to world, each getting center stage treatment and each expertly handled by musicians without obvious limits. And, while there is a notable absence of funk and hip hop, some of those sensibilities too are still present in the audacity and boldness of drummer Marcus Baylor’s aggressive approach to the drum, a sound in his hands that sometimes teeters on the edge of chaos, but is skillfully kept peering just over the cliff’s edge. For her part, singing in higher registers and exercising a wider palette of timbres and tones than we’ve ever heard from her in recordings, Jean Baylor is utterly unrecognizable as the former half of the ‘90s duo, Zhané, a transformation that takes the vocalist from great to outstanding. This too is part of the journey traversed, as both mature artists explore who they are now while giving a dutiful nod on the title track to whom they’d been and how far they’ve come. The Baylor Project’s The Journey is one you’ll want to pack for and join.
Elegant is a word rarely used to describe music or artists today, but there is something truly elegant about the way Jean Baylor sings throughout the couple’s long-awaited debut. At times there is a weightlessness to her mezzo-soprano as with the original “Again,” but Baylor can also become a husky, chocolatey crooner as with the jazz standard “Tenderly.” On the standout original like “Laugh and Move On,” Baylor is all church and soul, but also the consoling friend that will help many a suffering heart get through a hurting place. Throughout, she’s never less than regal and in complete command of what she’s doing as a technician, and yet it never feels like anything less than emotionally spontaneous and totally in the moment when heard. The consistently innovative arrangements for “Afro Blue,” “Summertime,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay” never stick to the original frames of these oft-covered standards in jazz, gospel, and Tin Pan Alley.
The Baylors’ sophisticated production and arrangement choices assists the listener’s aural sense of something new being borne out of the old in Jean’s phrasing and melodic bends and Marcus’s unpredictable percussive approach. It’s invigorating.
The often inspirational album is not without its experimentations in the vein of avant-garde jazz and world music with conceptual forays into more tribal terrain, be that the couple’s musical memoir of “Journey,” the implied history lesson of “Voice of The Drum,” or the multiple movements of “Afro Blue (Dream).” On a genre liberated ballad like “Again,” the tour-de-force song takes paths into gospel, classical, jazz, and world without ever losing the anchor of its melodic foundation. Balancing Jean Baylor and having his own solos, Marcus Baylor proves himself an ever-present force throughout the project, giving space to his wife to shimmer where she should but also ensuring that this is truly a duet project of musical peers. To be clear, this really is The Baylor Project and not merely a comeback showcase for the former singer of Zhané. As delightful as that surely might have been, this is more.
The execution of such a wide-ranging vision for the artist-producers of this glorious release could not have been possible without skillful players to help realize it, especially when tackling material as challenging as Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me A Story.” That support comes through with the help of pianists Allyson Johnson and Shedrick Mitchell, guitarists Rayfield “Ray Ray” Holloman and Marvin Sewell, bassists Dezron Douglas, Chris Smith, David “DJ” Ginyard and Corcoran Holt, percussionists Pablo Batista and Aaron Draper, tenor saxophonists Keith Loftis and Bob Mintzer trumpeters Freddie Hendrix and Keyon Harrold, trombonist Stafford Hunter, and harpist Brandee Younger. Collectively, they ensure The Baylor Project is something special to hear, and hear it you should. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson