ELISABETH KONTOMANOU / “Peace On Earth”
When people ask where I come from, I say I’m a child of the universe. I normally feel at home anywhere so long as I’m free to move around and explore!
Back To My Groove is a major albeit hard won breakthrough for vocalist/composer Elisabeth Kontomanou. Born in France to a father from Guinea (West Africa) and a mother from Greece, Elisabeth has put it all on the line on this album. Nothing she has done before this equals what she has achieved here. This is more than a great singer singing great songs. This is literally life.
My new album revolves around personal things like my suffering in the past and my hopes for the future. There are old songs on it as well as more recent material. I’d say that unlike the last two albums I did, which featured covers of jazz classics, this album is simply a lot more personal. The songs I wrote for it tell the story of my life and while the episodes it touches on aren’t always funny, I think there’s an optimistic feel to things overall.
Everything comes together wonderfully. The songs are more than head tunes. These are full compositions with sections and deep harmonies that move beyond one or two chord vamps. And the lyrics: so honest, so bold, so real. Autobiographical to the bone, on “What A Life” Elisabeth recalls a difficult childhood because she was different. That little vocal vamp at the end of the song giving evidence that she is past the pain and can talk about her scars without bitterness.
Listen to “Where I’m coming From.” It’s an essay. When she asks “was this on earth or some other planet / I haven’t figured this out yet,” man, I said: goddamn, this sister is going all the way there—“there” being the state of self identification of alienation and the realization that just maybe, as Sun Ra always said, just maybe we are not from here; after all here is such an alienating space. When she got to “wait for me out there, turn around to see where I’m coming from” I was utterly convinced: Elisabeth has crafted an seminal statement at a time when most female vocalists are just trying to get a pop hit.
And then the band takes off, exploring all the textures of fearlessly soaring into inner space. It’s collective improvisation at a level smooth jazz can never fathom. That’s a significant part of the total package; the band plays full out. They are not backing Elisabeth. They are accompanying her. Step for step. Significant in this regard is the sturdy foundation provided by long time musical cohort Thomas Bramerie on bass.
“Black Angel” is another burner but this time there are no lyrics, just sounds. Elisabeth’s voice chanting with a harp in the mix complementing Elisabeth’s opening. This sounds like something Pharoah was doing back in the seventies, especially because Sam Newsome on soprano saxophone is exquisite in both his timing and the texture of his notes counterpointing the beauty of Elisabeth’s gritty improvisations. This is cutting edge jazz, jazz of the rarest sort.
Then there is the ghostly “Late Cold Night.” Guitarist Marvin Sewell who has played with oodles of folk including Cassandra Wilson is all up, around and under this tune with those creepy obbligatos that are as sinister as a rattlesnake’s snare.
Elisabeth is no petite, cute, girly sounding ingénue. This is a full-voiced, full-bodied woman, fierce in her determination to make it as a jazz singer. On “Late Cold Night” Elisabeth is singing about New York City where she went to hone her craft. It used to be called paying dues.
You know, I left with a very negative image of the States, not of jazz. They’re two very different things. I’m planning to go back to New York, in fact, not necessarily to live there again, but to continue studying jazz. New York is where jazz is alive, where the people who inspire me are. New York is also where I experienced real poverty and misery, of course. I had to do all kinds of odd jobs to survive. I used to go and get food hand-outs at church, but I hung on in there and I always did my gigs come what may. I had this group back then, the Fort Green Project named after the local neighbourhood in Brooklyn where I was living at the time. They were a bunch of musician friends from Fort Green. I performed with them until I ran away from home with my kids and ended up living in a hostel for the homeless in Harlem. But no matter all the juggling I had to do - because the hostel closed early in the evening - I still managed to get out there and sing at night!
What we have here is a success at communicating: hiding nothing, revealing all. Writing about more than romantic love—indeed as she declaims in “Late Cold Night”: “here there’s no romance / only one night stands if you get the chance.”
I’m not saying no one else has gone through this but I am saying I don’t hear many other people writing about their experiences at this level, without self pity, without melodrama or sentimental sensationalism. This is clear eyed introspection. Look at her on the cover of her album. She’s smiling. Smiling the survivor’s smile.
A mother of four roaming the entrails of New York City explaining to her children why it is so important that she be here, important enough that they will stay in a hostel for a few days until she can scrap the money together for rent. Smiling self determination. We are going to do this. Regardless. Regardless of whatever.
Check out “Summer.” The arrangement is rhythmically rich and I especially like how her son Gustav has arranged the strings. (Check that harp in the mix again.) Again, the strings are not there as a sweetener to make the music sound "pretty," indeed the strings are used here to give both weight and a rough hewn heft to a song that could easily have easily been a lightly skipping, frothy throwaway piece. And, for that matter, I also really dig the emphatic and inventive drumming of her other son, Donald Kontomanou.
Elisabeth is betting her life on her ability to not only survive but also to thrive in a world that doesn’t really give a damn about art, about serious music—if you can’t shake to it, if it don’t ring the cash register, what the crooks say: forget about it! Elisabeth refuses to disremember her own worth. Elisabeth helps us to remember that our souls should not be for sale.
“Peace On Earth” is the last song on the album. It is the prayer. She chants her “la-la-laaaa” and declares “peace to the world.” It's a simple but not inconsequential song, simply well sung with a delightful and welcomingly vibrant joie de vivre.
This album has my vote for jazz album of the year. I know there are some other beautiful albums out there but for a vocalist/composer, a mother of four, a grown-ass woman to pull it all together and gift us with this powerful offering, this is an achievement of the highest order.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
A feeling of spiritual upliftment
Alright. Now here are some songs I like. "Summer" might be my favorite. As Kalamu pointed out, the string arrangement is very unusual. I don't know that I've ever heard strings used in a pop or jazz context where the intention wasn't to smooth things out.
"Black Angel" reminds me a lot of Flora Purim's work. I'm talking about some of Flora's tone-poems, records like "Uri (The Wind)" and "Summer Night." Like Flora's best work, "Black Angel" gives you a feeling of spiritual upliftment even as the vocalist comes at you with nothing but abstract sounds in the place of words.
I like "Peace On Earth" and "Where I'm Coming From" too. Judging from the selections Kalamu as given us, this is a very good album. I don't necessarily hear it as a straight-ahead jazz album, but whatever it is, whatever genre it intends to be, the songs are good, the musicians can play and the vocalist is bringing it. Good album.
—Mtume ya Salaam
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