Charm is something fleeting and rare in contemporary music; it can also cover a multitude of faults. The debut project by University of Southern California based trio, Moonchild, is blooming with charm and personality to spare. Sinewy summer breezes are brightened by this sandstone collection of jazz infused soul from this fresh collective of musician’s musicians. Amber Navran, Max Bryk and Andris Mattson self-describe their sound as neo-soul, but that unfairly limits and characterizes aurals that owe much more to the world of mid-to-late 20th century jazz than it does it Stevie, Minnie, Curtis, and Marvin. Airy and astral in the evenings, but bouncy and hip hop influenced in its swing tunes, Moonchild is often as young and wondrous as its name.
The jazz in Moonchild’s sound is come by honestly, with the trio having met and studied the genre while at school at USC. Touring together as a horn section just a year ago, the youngsters began co-writing, recording, and filming their first collaborative effort together. Released earlier this spring, Moonchild’s introduction has quietly enjoyed coverage by some of the urban alternative blogs that have taken the blue-eyed soul ingénues under their wing. The trio is joined on Be Free in their musical mysticism by soloist Ben Wendel, Russell Ferrante, John Daversa, and rapper Harry Mack. The neo-soul title track and current single, “Be Free” has deservedly been making the podcast and mixtape rounds, bringing attention to Amber Navran’s special phrasing and the band’s full, yet light and flowing approach to jazzy soul.
Speaking of Navran, it is difficult to describe Amber Navran’s fluid tone and agile phrasing without journeying to the land of more increasingly obscure jazz vocalists like Blossom Dearie, Astrud Gilberto, and a little Karin Krog thrown in for good measure. Navran’s cloud light texture on the moonlit material brings a charming wink and a nod to everything she sings, casting a joyous glow over songs that may not always be discernible lyrically—such is the sometimes daunting challenge of Navran’s tendency to coo her lines -- but whose feel nevertheless makes its listeners brighten into a smile. Songs like “Be Free,” the harmonic layered confection “Mmmm (the Heaven),” the flirty “The Things You Do” (featuring Russell Ferrante, a lovely interpolation of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Daydreaming’” and the slow walk of “What Shall We Do” are kin to one another in their lounging, slightly lazy provocations and in the longing, honesty and intelligence Navran delivers in every soul tying performance. Still, sometimes Navran’s confidence in her lyrically meandering approach overshoots becoming mush mouth singing as with the nearly indecipherable “Ocean Deep.”
Of course, Navran’s not the whole game, with capable musicians Ben Wendel and Ben Rose joining her on a mid-tempo groove that would not have been out of place on Guru’s Jazzamatazz Vol. 1. Rapper Harry Mack holds his own on the light funk of “Turn It Up,” a cut that could have benefited from a bit more thump both musically and in Mack’s solid, but not ingenious flow.
Throughout Be Free, Navran is often accompanied by horns and productions courtesy of Bryk and Mattson, whose feel and choices give the whole proceedings an old, yet timeless feel to songs that defy decade as much as genre. The proclaimed neo-soul comes in the choice of keys, basslines and pacing, but these seem more experimentation and homage to stated influences like Erykah Badu and D’Angelo than a fixed decision on the band’s clearly still evolving sound. The band’s love of John Coltrane can’t help but bleed through the late 90s tributes, providing a genre mash-up worth our attention. Newcomers to these newbies should also check out Moonchild’s original introduction to the public in “Don’t Wake Me,” a song that curiously was not included on this fine project, even though the Fender Rhodes mid-tempo groove would have seamlessly fit. Personality and charm go a long way, as Moonchild demonstrates, avoiding the question of whether the band has something as interesting to say as its sound. The next challenge will be to be heard and not merely felt, one lyric at a time. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson