Album: Call it Jazz
Label: Redwood Records
Alive! was an all-woman jazz quintet from the San Francisco bay area that consisted of the collective artistic vision of five musical personalities: the strong and dynamic vocals of Rhiannon, the vigorous expressions of pianist Janet Small, the avant-garde twists of bassist Susanne Vincenza, the driving rhythms of drummer Barbara Borden, and the Latin tinge of percussionist Carolyn Brandy.
The band toured for eight years and recorded three albums together during the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Call it Jazz” is the group’s second album, recorded live in 1981 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. This collaboration led to the creation of unique and original compositions developed through extended improvisation and experimentation, with lyrics that conceptualized the feminist and spiritual movements of the time. “Call it Jazz” embodies the quintet’s vivacity, placidity, and versatility, demonstrating their fascinating fusion of jazz, gospel, and Afro-Latin styles. Alive!’s ability to tactfully cross between idioms is evident throughout the album.
Alive! opens this album with the hard-driving Latin-inspired “Willing,” featuring dynamic and powerful solo statements by Small and Brandy. They further demonstrate their mastery of Afro-Latin styles on an original composition of Janet Small’s titled “Greeting Song.” This composition gathers its unique essence from the pulsing bass ostinato played by Vincenza and the repetitive comping pattern played by Small. This pulsation sets up Small and Brandy for dynamic and energetic solos.
Alive! demonstrates their rhythmic prowess on the hard swinging tunes “Call it jazz” and “Loving You.” The former begins at a steady medium tempo and then bursts into a fast-paced double time feel. Rhiannon shines with a lively and powerful scat solo, followed by an expressive solo by Small. “Loving You,” a Borden original, follows suit. The tune begins as a tender and breathy story of love and adoration, then bursts into an up-tempo swinging tale about the chaos and busy nature of life.
The two ballads composed by Rhiannon, Brandy, and Small appear to be partially written and partially free-composed, constantly venturing in and out of time in a rubato style, and often times bordering the avant-garde with percussive sounds and vocal humming and moans by Rhiannon.
They add variety to the pallet with the catchy Borden original “Step by Step,” the bluesy-soulful interpretation of an Ida Cox composition called “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” and the blues-shuffle of a Vincenza original called “Too Bad.”
Finally the album closes with an arrangement of a June Millington composition called “Heaven is in your Mind.” The message is clear in the lyrics “sisters and brothers, will you be united?” a statement that embodies the cultural fabric of Alive! The group’s impact on the women’s music scene was a powerful one, although it secluded them to a niche audience.
You can hear Alive! Monday through Friday 7 a.m. - 5 p.m., or on “Women in Jazz” every Thursday evening 8 p.m. - 9 p.m. hosted by yours truly, Jacqueline Sotelo.