It is a rare pleasure these days to hear a singer with a completely original sound, an immediately recognizable voice and style that mesmerizes with sheer tonal beauty. Such an artist is Maysa, who, like Anita Baker (to whom she is sometimes compared) occupies a completely unique niche in the musical cosmos, at the intersection of jazz and soul. But Maysa has ranged far more widely, into the realms of Acid Jazz, as a featured vocalist with Incognito, and dance music. Her multi-faceted artistry is part of what makes her special but it may also be a reason why she has not been more widely known, despite the fervor of her fans, in a world that depends far too much on easy categorization. The release of her seventh album, METAMORPHOSIS, an impressive set of all-original material that follows up on her two acclaimed albums of classic soul, may well be the album that takes her to the next level of appreciation as one of the foremost contemporary vocalists on the scene today.
"My vision for this album," Maysa notes, "was to change the music a little bit to be in line with the way I feel spiritually and emotionally. On a couple of my previous albums I was playing it a little too safe. I'm not afraid to express myself now!"
METAMORPHOSIS is the result of a creative process that involved Maysa's collaborations with a number of producers and writers, among them producers/songwriters/ Rex Rideout (Ledisi, Will Downing), Chris "Big Dog" Davis (George Clinton, Phil Perry) and underground soul fave Angela Johnson. Sometimes Maysa was inspired to write by a rhythm track that was developed
for her and at other times the inspiration came more or less out of the blue.
"I like being an A & R person, calling people and finding songs." Maysa confides. "Sometimes Rex or Chris gave me tracks to listen to and I picked ones out that I liked and wrote with them.
But on "Grateful," I was late to the studio one day and when I came in I heard the idea they were working on and the song just came out of me....it was kind of magical! Angela Johnson had this song that she said she had given to me before and she thought that I hadn't liked it so she re-worked it. When I heard it, I said, 'I didn't hear that before...it's great!'"
Sometimes life itself provided inspiration as on the Ronnie Garrett/Herman Johnson production "Walk Away," which was written by producer Lorenzo Johnson and Ledisi. "Ledisi came to one of my concerts," Maysa relates, "and I had just broken up with my boyfriend at the time. I was telling the story and she thought a song he was writing would be perfect for me.
"I Need A Man", may be one of her most controversial songs to date, but Maysa wants to assure her audience that it is not a song about being desperate for a man, but about rebuilding the family structure, much like the message that Presidential Candidate Barack Obama spoke of in one of his most eloquent speeches he has made during his campaign. "I grew up with a strong father and I want and pray for and am waiting for a man who will be that kind of man for me. "I believe that if we rebuild the family structure, we can raise children with high self-esteem which will in turn bless the world with stronger, more thoughtful human beings which will definitely change the world."
METAMORPHOSIS offers many high points that underscore Maysa's impressive ability to project her soul into different musical contexts. Songs such as "Simpatico" deliver the kind funky Brazilian-inflected jazz that Maysa has been noted for with Incognito, as well as on own her albums. "Never Really Ever" is slinky neo-soul while "I Need A Man" is a straightforward R & B ballad wherein Maysa delivers a "let's get real" message for her sisters. "Let's Figure It Out (A Song for Bluey)" offers a twist as it begins with a long contemporary jazz jam that suddenly morphs into a flat-out dance track. And "Conversation with the Universe" finds Maysa scatting over an edgy track created for her by Global Noize (Jason Miles & DJ Logic). "I wasn't sure if that one was going to be too 'out' for my listeners," Maysa laughs, "but I played it for some friends and they loved it!" METAMORPHOSIS also features some impressive guest performers; saxophonist/flautist Najee and guitarist Nick Colionne and drummer/producer Michael White.
Maysa Leak was born and raised in Baltimore, MD and knew by the time she was six that she would be a musician. "It was when my parents took me to see the musical Purlie," she recalls. "The moment Melba Moore took the stage and opened her mouth, I made my decision that music would be my fate." She graduated from Morgan State University with a degree in classical performance, meeting Stevie Wonder while a student. Upon graduating, she moved to North Hollywood to join Stevie Wonder's "Wonderlove", with whom she performed for a year, performing on the Jungle Fever soundtrack and such television shows as Oprah and The Tonight Show. During this time she also met one of her main influences, Chaka Khan, "Stevie took us out to see one of Chaka's shows," she remembers," and during her concert she invited fans to come onstage and sing with her. Most of these singers were trying to out-sing Chaka. So she would heckle them. Stevie asked me to go on stage and sing with her. At first I said 'no' but once I decided to get up I knew I had to do something different. So I scatted. When I did that, Chaka said 'Go 'head girl! The whole audience went crazy. Chaka Khan will forever be an influence. Her power and tone have inspired me to develop my own voice and be unique, sweet and powerful, all at the same time."
In the early Nineties, Maysa auditioned over the phone to become the new lead singer of the acclaimed British jazz/funk/R & B band Incognito, moving to London for four and a half years. She has appeared on over nine Incognito recordings and continues to appear as a featured vocalist with them from time to time. Maysa then recorded her self-titled debut album for GRP in 1995, following it up with ALL MY LIFE in 1999, and OUT OF THE BLUE in 2002, SMOOTH SAILING in 2004. She then made an impact with her interpretations of classic soul music on two acclaimed albums for Shanachie, SWEET CLASSIC SOUL(2005) and FEEL THE FIRE(2007), on which she showed her ability to put her own unique stamp on familiar songs from the 1970's era.
While some may advise Maysa to concentrate on one musical direction, she refuses to limit herself because the many directions she explores are all a part of her soul. "Being a female Will Downing, or Luther Vandross, a balladeer, is part of my niche," she says," but a lot of jazz and funk will always be in me too. My hero is Sarah Vaughn, so I have always said I'm on the road to Straight Ahead(Jazz)! I just had that conversation with Bluey (of Incognito). It's all in me!!