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Gabriela Martina — Homage to Gr​ä​mlis
(Bandcamp no#, 2023, CD / 2LP / DL)

Gabriela Martina — States
(Bandcamp no#, 2024, CD / DL)

by Jon Davis, Published 2024-05-22

Homage to Gr​ä​mlis Cover artStates Cover art

A few weeks ago I reviewed Guardians by Chinese-born jazz singer Annie Chen, an album that brings together the American idioms of jazz with elements of Chinese music. At hand we have two albums by Swiss singer Gabriela Martina Heer (known professionally as Gabriela Martina), who does something comparable with the traditional music of her homeland. When most of us think of the folk music of Switzerland, the first thing that’s likely to come to mind is yodeling, and it might seem that yodeling is about as un-jazz as can be. But when one gets down to basics, it’s just a vocal technique, a way of making sound with human vocal chords, one of several physiological methods of generating vibrations in the air. Yodeling is the rapid alternation between a singer’s normal vocal register and their higher register, and this kind of register change is part of most singers’ repertoire, though not in the rapid way typical of yodeling. Pop, rock, folk, and country singers often use the transition to a higher octave in their upper register to provide interest in their melodies, but the technique is less heard in jazz. Gabriela Martina makes a solid case for its jazz validity, only occasionally slipping into something that might come off as “corny.” But “corny” is a judgment based on an arbitrary cultural norm and is unrelated to actual music quality. On Homage to Gr​ä​mlis, she starts off with “This Country, That Country,” a personal song about the richness brought to her life by having a background that includes both Switzerland and the United States, and yodeling is the first thing we hear. There’s a moment of disorientation when her jazzy backing band comes in, but as the song progresses, she brings it all together confidently, as if to say, “This is who I am, and I’m not afraid to belt it out.” Kyle Miles (electric and acoustic bass), Vancil Cooper (drums), Jussi Reijonen (electric and acoustic guitar), Maxim Lubarsky (keyboards), and Ben Rosenblum (accordion) provide stellar backing for the songs, which are mostly originals, spanning the worlds of jazz, folk, and rock seamlessly. “Four Siblings” is my favorite track, with an energetic rhythm section and great interactions between the musicians. She ventures into more traditional jazz vocal territory with a version of Duke Ellington’s “Heaven.” What shines through on all of the songs, no matter where they land on the stylistic spectrum, is the beautiful purity of her voice.

The followup to Homage to Gr​ä​mlis is States, out May 23, and once again the opening track serves as a sort of manifesto of the artist’s intentions. “Full Circle” starts with an insistent rhythmic pattern and a choppy vocal line that only vaguely resembles jazz. I’m instantly reminded of one of my favorite singers, Emily Bezar, though I realize this connection will be unknown to many readers. Working with the same set of musicians, the level of originality is raised significantly. The elaborate overdubbed vocal parts are especially wonderful, with a soaring wordless part high above the rest. Khrys Williams contributes a spoken word interlude. Elsewhere on the album, guests Jason Palmer (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Naseem Alatrash (cello) provide additional colors to the music. “Alpha Bird” is of special note, and is the track that convinced me Gabriela Martina is a force to be reckoned with. Lubarsky’s piano intro may draw inspiration from Franz Schubert (“Erlkönig”), but the track as a whole borders on sophisticated progressive rock (Rock in Opposition wrenched in a fusion direction). Reijonen’s electric guitar adds grit, the bass line (doubled on piano) is decidedly non-jazz, and Cooper’s drum part is outstanding. Another notable track is her cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams,” relocating the 90s classic into a realm of slinky funk and ambiguous tonality with a powerful chorus and a spoken interlude (Williams again, including the cutting line, “The American Dream was made by an experiment shoddily built”). I don’t know if Gabriela Martina will continue with this band, as she has relocated to Amsterdam and they’re based in the US, but States stands as the beautiful and compellingly original work of a supremely talented musician.

Filed under: New releases, 2023 releases, 2024 releases

Related artist(s): Jussi Reijonen, Gabriela Martina

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