As the musical alias of Ben Lamdin, Nostalgia 77 started, like many of the nu-jazz artists who appeared in the late ’90s and early ’00s, as an instrumental outfit informed by hip-hop and incorporating synthesised beats. And, like the majority of those same artists, he gradually departed from this initial modus operandi in a fashion that, on reflection, seems almost retrograde. On second album The Garden, Lamdin branched out to team up with singer Alice Russell on a cover of The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, to wide acclaim. Assured by this success, he then dived even deeper into vocal jazz on 2007′s Everything Under The Sun with honey-voiced guests Lizzy Parks and Beth Rowley. This process of de-electrifying and over-jazzing is documented also in the creation of the Nostalgia 77 Octet, a body of nine (eight guests plus Lamdin) instrumentalists performing acoustic improvisations on his material along with new compositions.
Following this trend, The Sleepwalking Society plays as a cute duet between Lamdin and Josa Peit, his new vocal muse who steals most of the show for herself. It’s amusing to follow all the mutations of her voice; Peit can sound tender, almost caressing, but she also clearly revels in the role of stark, untameable diva, and her combining of jazz phrasing with soulful vigour is both stirring and sincere. The bottom line of The Sleepwalking Society is its diversity and thoughtful changes in mood and tempo, and Peit’s influence is crucial. That said, it’s the mid-paced jazzy songs that have the greatest representation here, and show Lamdin’s unarguable progress in composing for classical instruments and his full understanding of the chemistry between them.
Certainly, The Sleepwalking Society isn’t just about Peit; it’s also the essential details and peculiarities installed within the instrumentals that make the album such an enjoyable listen. First single ‘Simmerdown’ does exactly the opposite of its title, rising ever higher from the initial light calm into more viable territory, while ‘Golden Morning’, against all intuition, reaches its climax in silence. Lamdin’s use of shimmering acoustic guitar tremolo sets an uneasy mood that almost feels out of place on such a vibrant, quasi-traditional jazz album, but the diversity is more than welcome. If all the songs were like the introductory ‘Sleepwalker’, on which Peit successfully over-sings the saxophone, running raw and wild over a surface Rhodes groove and staccato rhythm with candid exuberance, exhaustion would set in long before the ‘Mockingbird’ sang.
Elsewhere, the woodwind-driven instrumental ‘When Love Is Strange’ feels like a natural evolution of Lamdin’s earlier Nostalgia 77 creations, whereas ‘Cherry’ (the album’s only ballad) operates on an exhilaratingly new part of the spectrum. Peit’s blue, nearly husky voice works in symbiosis with the opulent strings and soothing guitar to create a sense of melodrama that threatens to spill over every second, and the frequent changes in intensity and height further multiply the richness, almost pretentiousness, of the song. Also remarkable are the brisk, dynamic woodwinds of ‘Blue Shadow’, and the album’s last and longest track, ‘Hush’ – precisely the variety of song we all imagine being played in a smoky, low-lit bar filled with fancy intellectuals sipping glasses of rosé or dancing slowly late into the night. Providing a respite from Peit’s more emphatic tendencies, it’s the perfect end to the story of The Sleepwalking Society.
All in all, Lamdin’s latest work marks his full immersion into the world of stylish, modern jazz through a traditional filter, and it’s a colourful and evolving piece that excels at changing its outward faces while preserving its consistency. Moody and lively, it’s a look that suits him well.
[TruThoughts; March 21, 2011]