Rhiannon creates magic with passion, originality

Rhiannon. Great Hall, Arts Centre, April 27. Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd.

In every jazz festival there is always one act that completely blows me away, and, even though I've got a whole heap of goodies to listen to before the 2006 festival is through, I'm prepared to use up my wow card right now on Rhiannon.

This was one amazing voice emanating from a truly wonderful lady in one of the most honest and passionate performances I've seen from anybody in any musical genre.

Rhiannon's vibrant personality and larger-than-life stage persona are matched only by the smorgasbord of vocalisations she manages to conjure up. I say conjure because the result is often magical, perhaps even spiritual.

From the arresting opening I knew that here was a performer right out of left field with a very original take on the art of singing.

What Rhiannon does is way beyond scat, as it melds together performance art, recitation, straight singing and, well, noises, into something that really connects in a very idiosyncratic way. She deploys all the ethnic, tribal, primal sounds you can imagine, with a liberal dash of kindergarten distress and environmental imitation. Then out of all that springs a classic tune like Autumn Leaves, or some Keith Jarrett, and even the Beatles ballad Blackbird.

The mood easily switched as the songs moved seamlessly into one another, and then she went into overdrive for a quick-fire assault on, say, modern living, rather like a menopausal volcano, starting soft then building up to the big explosion.

The tight backing trio must have had a ball backing her, and probably quite a few challenging moments, too.

They were the dream team to have as backing, led by the ubiquitous talent of Tom Rainey on piano. Rainey was the link between Rhiannon and the band. She could not wish for better. Ritchie Pickard turned in another top night, this time on bass guitar, and the sinuous drumming of Nick Gaffaney was absolutely brilliant, often delicate and understated but providing the funky minimalist riffs around which Rhiannon wove her streams of consciousness.

Onstage spontaneity as metaphor for life
The singer Rhiannon lives in the moment as she gracefully shifts through styles

January 22, 2005
By Don Heckman, Times Staff Writer

Rhiannon, yet another of San Francisco's talented cadre of singers, doesn't look like a revolutionary. When she first strolled onto the stage Thursday at the Vic in Santa Monica, her warm, even maternal appearance suggested an evening of quietly engaging music making.

Engaging it was. But it was a lot more, as Rhiannon began illuminating the links between jazz, voice, improvisation and life. She started her opening number with a breathtaking sequence of vocal sounds, singing percussive pops, clicks and swoops, adding soft-toned melodies, astonishing the full-house crowd as well as her accompanying musicians.

That was just the beginning of a set that embraced unique interpretations of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" — far surpassing, in imaginative qualities, other recent covers of the song — and Lennon-McCartney's "Blackbird"; several of Rhiannon's own works, including a hilarious, rap-like romp through a piece describing, at breathless speed, the trials and tribulations of a busy workday morning; and several spontaneous improvisational passages with her players and the audience.

Rhiannon (who uses only the single, Celtic-derived name) did all this with pinpoint musicality, soaring invention and irresistible passion. A veteran of the women's movement, her efforts were powerfully invested with the subtle, many-layered strengths of women's culture, driven by her ensemble experiences with her own female ensemble, Alive!, and her work with Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra.

When she wasn't captivating her audience with her vocal energies, she was intimately reactive to the hard-swinging efforts of the talented young pianist Josh Nelson and the superb rhythm team of bassist Abraham Laboriel and drummer Alex Acuña.

In the study guide with "Flight," her two-CD set on vocal improvisation, Rhiannon writes that "Improvisation is a gift, a necessity, a skill, a dance with the unknown." That skill now needs revival and restoration, because, she notes, "When you improvise you become part of all that is alive…. " In her quietly revolutionary fashion, Rhiannon displayed the fundamental, convincing reality of that thought.