Ascendant - Illuminate: Green (2019)

Ascendant
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Ascendant - Illuminate: Green

In today’s world of R&B, the presence of household bands seem to be absent, at least in the bigger scheme of things — radio, TV, magazines. And because of the ever changing and evolving taste buds of black radio and its patrons, the world of bands has been thrusted into the background to make room for single entities, mostly quickly assembled hip-hop stars. But bands like Ascendant hope to change all of that. This exciting five-piece group, hailing from Chicago, is dropping an ambitious collection of projects that fall in the category of concept albums. With a long struggle during their developmental stages, including members coming and going, they are now challenged to tell their story of survival and their passion for music, the chief equalizer inside their bond. 

Ascendant - Illuminate: Green

In today’s world of R&B, the presence of household bands seem to be absent, at least in the bigger scheme of things — radio, TV, magazines. And because of the ever changing and evolving taste buds of black radio and its patrons, the world of bands has been thrusted into the background to make room for single entities, mostly quickly assembled hip-hop stars. But bands like Ascendant hope to change all of that. This exciting five-piece group, hailing from Chicago, is dropping an ambitious collection of projects that fall in the category of concept albums. With a long struggle during their developmental stages, including members coming and going, they are now challenged to tell their story of survival and their passion for music, the chief equalizer inside their bond. 

Illuminate: Blue was released in 2013. Their highly anticipated follow-up, the saga’s latest entry, Illuminate: Green, just dropped, and is a six-track EP odyssey loaded with adventurous R&B floating on the wings of jazz, funk and gospel. You hear this interesting musical gumbo instantly on the opening track “Promise,” which sports Musiq Soulchild riffs and Rhodes-heavy contemporary jazz. With leads from Kael Mboya, Michael Lockett and guest vocalist Donica Lynn, this three-minute adventure feels like an easy listening merging of Sade and Maze. They turn up the intricate work on “More,” a highly layered punchy piece fired up with big brass, lead guitar solos and spicy rhythms. “What more can we do?” they ask in the first half of the track. The answer lies at the very end of the song’s second half; focusing heavily on inspiration and self-empowering lyrics: “We’ve got to love one another/Be good to our sisters and brothers.” It wouldn’t be surprising if this is ever branded gospel jazz.

But they again pivot their sound, turning up the funk, thanks to the Tina Howell-led “Ain’t Got No Time,” on which Ascendant relies on Rufus funk and tasty Prince-inspired guitar solo spells. You hear more of that juicy groove layered inside “Gotta Get Up,” the album’s lead single. Here they revisit the motivational feel-good quotes while working up multi leads with returning vocalist Donica Lynn. They goes back and forth from female to male solos like Rufus and Chaka, like One Way and Alicia Meyers. It’s like a cheerful revisit to “Do You Love What You Feel” vibes, while using a heavier slice of joyful disco.

The last two tracks give the disc its triumphant closure. “Finally” slows things down, pouring Philly soul channeled harmonies into the mix. It’s a gorgeous slow jam, also mesmerizing with the lead vocal pairing of Michael Lockett and Swaylo. And just when you think the song ends, like Luther did with “A House Is Not a Home,” it returns with a stunning reprise, sewn together with soft, fluttery romantics: “You came, you came, you came my way,” the background vocalists serenade on repeat. There’s also “Brand New Me,” a song that hints at the band’s unshakable faith and their system of survival. No need to think of the Dusty Springfield/Aretha Franklin/Isaac Hayes soul version; this one is rooted and grounded in gospel and climaxes peacefully in a quiet storm jazz sunset.

Yes, the disc is quite a short adventure, a bit heavy on the uplifting spiritual stuff and perhaps not enough drama, leaving more to be desired. And that may eventually come in the forthcoming chapters. But if you love the early works of Earth, Wind & Fire and wanna hear it blend with Najee soul, contemporary gospel and the occasional funk, this is a safe bet and a good place to start. All in all, this is what Illuminate: Green was designed to be: inspirational. Let’s hope there’s more...so much more to come from them. Recommended.

By J Matthew Cobb

 
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