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 you might enjoy listening, but that’s jazz designed for middle class white folks, and not the real thing.
While there are, of course, those people who actually genuinely dig real jazz, things like John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, they are growing fewer in number. The sad truth is that France has become a lonely haven, one of the few places where jazz is still cherished and pushed forward by more than just a small minority.
So it was indeed good fortune that, after selling all her possessions to buy a guitar and a plane ticket, Dominican-born Afro-American Natalia M King picked France as her destination of choice.
The press release for Milagro describes her rise to prominence in fairytale terms: she was spotted busking outside a Metro station and was chosen as a subject for a documentary on French TV channel Canal+, plucked from obscurity to become the proverbial overnight sensation.
A successful support slot with Diana Krall was then followed 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 that all of the songs on the album are written by King. Oh, and that she used to be a busker.
Because, to be honest, this is an infuriatingly mixed album in terms of quality. The first three tracks announce King’s style of music, as her slightly wailing vocals compete for prominence with a minimal but suitably discordant ‘modern jazz’ accompaniment. In common with the final three tracks, the jarring non-harmonics compliment songs that lack any real vocal variation. In terms of length, the songs are epics (the shortest being over five minutes, the longest over nine), but they fall down because they lack that epic sound. When a song isn’t very good, it needs a big sound to justify it going on for anything more than the standard three and a half minutes.
This description of the six songs that bookend Milagro seems indeed damning, yet what is so remarkable about the record is that the middle three songs are truly stunning. At the start of title track Milagro, King introduces 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, as she sings for the first time with real conviction and soul.
Milagro means miracle, and the miracle here is her incredible voice which we hear properly for the first time on this track. On the next two tracks, Angel and The Edge, the songs again seem to inspire her with true passion, while the accompaniment 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 to note that Buckley often sang cover versions or collaborated in the writing of his songs. In truth, the majority of the songs are what we would expect from an ex-busker – except much longer. Though only nine tracks long, the marathon Milagro lasts over an hour, and, considering the overall standard, 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 a beautiful one. Good luck, Natalia!