Aimee K. Bryant - Becoming (2008)

Aimee K. Bryant
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There was a time when the best and brightest voices in R&B were discovered and cultivated in the world of theater. With the rare exception of Elisabeth Withers and Heather Headley, those days appear long gone. Melba Moore, Stephanie Mills, Jennifer Holliday, and Desiree Coleman were all Broadway trained forces of nature who brought a certain class, sophistication and, most of all, technical skill to recordings that married their classical training with their jazz and gospel roots. Singer/songwriter Aimee K. Bryant on her debut recording Becoming certainly falls into this rarefied category of singers, reminding me of how much this class of singers has been missed. A theater trained vocalist from the legendary Howard University Fine Arts program, Ms. Bryant developed a keen vocal style and dramatic awareness under Howard's iconic Director Mike Malone, a man who's trained and directed a virtual who's who of Black performers.

There was a time when the best and brightest voices in R&B were discovered and cultivated in the world of theater. With the rare exception of Elisabeth Withers and Heather Headley, those days appear long gone. Melba Moore, Stephanie Mills, Jennifer Holliday, and Desiree Coleman were all Broadway trained forces of nature who brought a certain class, sophistication and, most of all, technical skill to recordings that married their classical training with their jazz and gospel roots. Singer/songwriter Aimee K. Bryant on her debut recording Becoming certainly falls into this rarefied category of singers, reminding me of how much this class of singers has been missed. A theater trained vocalist from the legendary Howard University Fine Arts program, Ms. Bryant developed a keen vocal style and dramatic awareness under Howard's iconic Director Mike Malone, a man who's trained and directed a virtual who's who of Black performers. Bryant has the distinction of being one of several now famous indie soul artists honed under the recently deceased Malone, a crop that includes Deborah Bond, Ellisha "Teapot" McKinney, and the highly celebrated Eric "Erro" Roberson. On this skillful set of dramatic stories and moods, Ms. Bryant unveils a theatrical approach to vocal storytelling with a delicacy and accuracy that is light, lovely and very becoming, indeed.

Aimee's lilting voice may meet on the corner of Broadway and Soul, but her debut, Becoming, has all the elements of a classic 80's R&B album. There are hip, melodic tunes whose simplicity and catchiness mask the live instrumentation's technical complexities. Feel good tunes like "Everytime" and producer Frankie Fultz's finger-popping "Alright" are the type of no-brainer grooves that once would have equally found homes on R&B, Adult Contemporary and even Top 40 radio formats. "Alright" and "Everytime" along with the restrained, if under-produced jam sessions "Dancing" and "Kiss Me," demonstrates a sound and composition reminiscent of an early Patrice Rushen. Spare piano and string-laden ballads such as the Bryant produced "Do You Know" and the Malo produced title track "Becoming" are the kind of sweet vocal showcases that built the reputations of many a diva along the Great White Way. Once staples, these vulnerable torch songs were the trademarks of R&B über-producers like Narada Michael Walden and Michael Masser and the star-makers of songbirds like Stacy Lattisaw and Deniece Williams (Aimee's tonal doopleganger). Outside of American Idol contestants, no one even sings these kinds of bare-naked cuts anymore, only a few like Aimee have the talent needed for them. What makes Becoming feel so 80's isn't mimicry, gimmicky hooks, new age sound effects or the odd vocal techniques of today's Reagan retro-R&B. In its many charming melodies and intelligent storytelling, it's this album's completeness that evokes the theater-bred songstress projects of an earlier, more musically plentiful age.

From the blue daytime drama "They Do (Everyday)" to the anthemic "We Are", Becoming has stories and declarations galore. Sometimes Ms. Bryant and her co-collaborator Frankie Fultz's production do fail to properly support the project's bountiful tales and thought-provoking lyrics, as in the opener "We Are." But, then there comes on a song that makes you forget any of the project's hiccups and urges listener hosannas at the craftsmanship of Aimee's compositions. The moment comes three or four times at least on Becoming, but none as satisfying as the XM radio-ready "This Jones." Marvelous, relatable lyrics like "I'm just a junkie trying to get high off a song" make "This Jones" the high watermark of Becoming. The Jeffery Bailey produced and arranged "This Jones" is a metaphorical ballad that toys with being a mid-tempo groove. With a vivid melancholy tugging at her soprano, Aimee tells the story of a woman addicted to a rollercoaster relationship and desperately trying to release herself from "This Jones" through music or any fix that can replace the heights of her dysfunctional love. On angelic backing vocals that swoop and swoon through this woman's tale of woe, Aimee also proves she's one of the most gifted self-harmonizing female artists since the Perri sisters.

Though Becoming is weighty with sophisticated splendor, there are some funky, contemporary moments that propel Aimee out of both her Patrice Rushen and Broadway Baby modes. Don't let the wholesome, gap-tooth smile on the back of that CD cover fool you; this ballsy girl's got spunk. Bryant adds just enough funk on the potentially controversial, but unyieldingly catchy "No, Ni-a, No" to let you know she's heard a Rufus tune or two in her day without allowing the feisty tune to become a predictable throwback. Though she offers a warning to listeners potentially offended by her use of the N-word, the gritty tune's placement on this self-released project provides an interesting crack in Bryant's otherwise smiley good girl image, adding to-rather than detracting from-her artistic complexity.

Whether Aimee is jamming in a number of clubs that are sure to soon be vying for her attentions or performing showstoppers on the musical theater stages in her Twin Cities hometown, Ms. Bryant has demonstrated on Becoming that she's a talent worth keeping tabs on. With a debut album this fine, I'm sure somewhere in the heavens there's a legendary teacher beaming down on his protégé with pride. Highly recommended.

 

--L. Michael Gipson

 
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