Jazz, it has to be admitted, is pretty unfashionable at the moment. Sure,your mum and dad put on a bit of Ella and Louis from time to time, and youmight enjoy listening, but that’s jazz designed for middle class whitefolks, and not the real thing.
While there are, of course, those people whoactually genuinely dig real jazz, things like John Coltrane or SonnyRollins, they are growing fewer in number. The sad truth is that France hasbecome a lonely haven, one of the few places where jazz is still cherishedand pushed forward by more than just a small minority.
So it was indeed good fortune that, after selling all her possessions to buya guitar and a plane ticket, Dominican-born Afro-American Natalia M Kingpicked France as her destination of choice.
The press release for ‘Milagro’describes her rise to prominence in fairytale terms: she was spotted buskingoutside a Metro station and was chosen as a subject for a documentary onFrench TV channel Canal +, plucked from obscurity to become the proverbialovernight sensation.
A successful support slot with Diana Krall was thenfollowed by Universal’s jazz arm signing her to cut her first record.Before saying how good or bad ‘Milagro’ is, it’s necessary to point out thatall of the songs on the album are written by King. Oh, and that she used tobe a busker.
Because, to be honest, this is an infuriatingly mixed album interms of quality. The first three tracks announce King’s style of music, asher slightly wailing vocals compete for prominence with a minimal butsuitably discordant ‘modern jazz’ accompaniment. In common with the finalthree tracks, the jarring non-harmonics compliment songs that lack any realvocal variation. In terms of length, the songs are epics (the shortest beingover five minutes, the longest over nine), but they fall down because theylack that epic sound. When a song isn’t very good, it needs a big sound tojustify it going on for anything more than the standard three and a halfminutes.
This description of the six songs that bookend ‘Milagro’ seems indeeddamning, yet what is so remarkable about the record is that the middle threesongs are truly stunning. At the start of title track ‘Milagro’, Kingintroduces a tribal edge to the music. I don’t know what the song’s chorus”Insha Allah O iman, Shookaran shookaran” means, but King certainly does, asshe sings for the first time with real conviction and soul.
‘Milagro’ meansmiracle, and the miracle here is her incredible voice which we hear properlyfor the first time on this track. On the next two tracks, ‘Angel’ and ‘TheEdge’, the songs again seem to inspire her with true passion, while theaccompaniment accordingly retreats to let us hear all the magnificence ofKing’s soulful cries. For the middle section of the album we are entranced,completely held by the glorious power and clarity of King’s vocals.
Sadly, the magic is over all too quickly. King cites Jeff Buckley as one of her idols, yet it would do her good tonote that Buckley often sang cover versions or collaborated in the writing ofhis songs. In truth, the majority of the songs are what we would expect froman ex-busker – except much longer. Though only nine tracks long, themarathon ‘Milagro’ lasts over an hour, and, considering the overallstandard, that’s a good twenty minutes too much.
So, I guess it’s pretty simple then. If King collaborates and sings covers,she could surely maintain the form she shows in the middle section of’Milagro’ over the course of a whole record. And it would indeed be abeautiful one. Good luck, Natalia!