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Becca Stevens: Regina
by George Graham
(Ground UP Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/5/2016)
With the abundance of singer-songwriters on the scene, their music can span a wide range, from the solo poetic guitar strummers to artists creating elaborate musical compositions and arrangements. We have another very good example of the latter this time. It’s the newest recording by Becca Stevens called Regina. It’s her latest project in a career which has seen some fascinating ones both under her own name, and in collaboration with other distinctive artists from David Crosby to Esperanza Spalding to the Snarky Puppy band.
A native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Becca Stevens attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then graduated from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, with degrees in vocal jazz and composition. She has been on the New York scene, mainly in jazz, since about 2007, and has appeared on a number of jazz albums from artists including trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, pianist Taylor Eigsti, the fusion group Dapp Theory, and popular bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. She was also a part of Billy Childs’ album Map to the Treasure, Reimagining Laura Nyro, and the 2016 project by the eclectic ensemble Snarky Puppy, Family Dinner Volume 2 which we featured on this review series. And she has been performing as a part of David Crosby’s band, a favor he returns by appearing on her new album. Ms. Stevens is also part of a vocal trio with Gretchen Parlatto and Rebecca Martin called Tillery.
Regina is Becca Stevens’ fourth album under her own name. Her own music has been marked by sophisticated arrangements, many with tricky rhythms, much of which also highlights her abilities as a kind of vocal gymnast, showing great agility and range, in addition to being an appealing singer. Her last album, Perfect Animal was on of our winners of the Graham Awards for being one of the best albums of 2015.
Her new recording is a very much a multi-faceted one, with a number of the tracks being studies in musical contrasts with angelic choruses of her vocals sometimes mixed with aggressive guitars, with several pieces having mandolin as its principal instrument. There are three prominent guest vocalists, the aforementioned David Crosby, the brilliant young English multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Jacob Collier whose own album we reviewed last year, and British artist Laura Mvula.
According to Ms. Stevens, this album started out as a commission in 2014 from the Jazz Gallery in New York. She originally started with Queen Elizabeth I as being the theme, though Ms. Stevens says that expanded to include other queens, regal figures and ultimately a character named Regina who serves as a kind of muse for the creative process.
The production of album was rather ambitious, co-produced by Troy Miller, Michael League of Snarky Puppy and Jacob Collier, there were sessions in London and New York, to incorporate the guests from both sides of the Atlantic, including Laura Mvula and Jacob Collier from the UK, Crosby and the members of Snarky Puppy in the US, along with the regular members of her band including notable drummer Jordan Perlson. Also appearing is the Attacca String Quartet. Ms. Stevens is often heard on high pitched string instruments, including mandolin and what sounds like a ukulele.
Although Ms. Stevens’ music is lyrically literate with pieces ranging from love songs to breakup songs to compositions about real and imagined sources of inspiration, the arrangements are so fascinating and Ms. Stevens’ performances so compelling, it’s easy to concentrate on the music, which is definitely this album’s strength.
Opening is a piece called Venus, which features British vocalist Laura Mvula as guest. Like many of Ms. Stevens’ composition, the track has a complicated rhythm that seems to twist in on itself. The orchestration with the multiple atmospheric voices contrasts with the occasional harder edges the tune can take. <<>>
Ms. Stevens has been touring with David Crosby, and the track Lean On bears a resemblance to some of Crosby’s more recent works, though this is not the song on which he appears. <<>>
One of two pieces featuring Jacob Collier is Both Still Here which is another fascinating track with the arrangement revolving around a mandolin and Collier’s trademark multiple layers of vocals. <<>>
There are a couple of breakup songs on the album. 45 Bucks is pretty straightforward in its frankness, while the arrangement is a creative amalgam of bits of contemporary pop with almost a jazz-rock fusion texture at time, sharing the musical stage with Ms. Stevens’ mandolin. <<>>
Another very eclectic and imaginative piece is Queen Mab, which combines almost ethereal vocals with ugly, distorted instrumentation, and lyrics about grasshoppers and fairies. <<>>
One of the rockier-sounding tracks is Mercury which also comes off well, with its quirky lyrics. <<>>
The title track Regina is another piece in which, after a mostly acoustic start with what sounds like a ukulele, builds into an elaborate and sonically eclectic performance. <<>>
The track that features David Crosby is The Muse. Crosby and Ms. Stevens are quite compatible musically, in this piece that also features the string quartet. <<>>
Regina, the new fourth album by composer-vocalist Becca Stevens, is another fascinating recording by, I think, an exceptional artist. First of all, she is a versatile and technically impressive singer, and she is a very skilled composer and arranger. Her music features layer upon layer of musical ideas, from tricky almost whirling rhythms, to the mixture of the ethereal with the earthy. Her album definitely involved a lot of studio production with its multiple layers of voices and the interesting sonic textures, and its parts recorded on two continents. She is a commendable lyricist, but even if she did not have anything to say, the music would be quite remarkable. Although her 2015 album Perfect Animal was a real standout, the new release Regina, a generous thirteen track album running an hour and three minutes, goes another yet step.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A” without many reservations. The elaborate studio production is done very well, Ms. Stevens’ vocals are cleanly recorded, and the dynamic range – how well the recording preserves the difference between loud and soft – is better than the contemporary average.
Becca Stevens combination of creativity, musical eclecticism and high quality musicianship including from her guests on the album, make Regina a real standout recording, and I think one of the best of the year so far.
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