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Scott Kinsey/Mer Sal: Adjustments
by George Graham
(Blue Canoe Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/20/2021)
The jazz-rock fusion scene and the singer-songwriter genre seem to be at opposite musical poles. The fusion scene is almost always instrumental, and usually with complex compositions, very electric instrumentation and a bunch of improvised solos. The archetype of the singer-songwriter is that of a folkie strumming an acoustic guitar, with the lyrics being the major focus of the music with the compositions generally emphasizing simplicity. Occasionally one encounters singer-songwriters with some jazz in their background like Bruce Cockburn or from a piano standpoint, Bruce Hornsby.
But this week we have really interesting record that goes all out for the musical complexity of fusion with the poetic approach of a singer-songwriter. It’s by Scott Kinsey and Mer Sal, and it’s called Adjustments. Scott Kinsey is a veteran fusion keyboardist and composer known for his work the band Tribal Tech, featuring Scott Henderson. Kinsey was a friend and acolyte of the late Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, and has played with The Zawinul Legacy Band.
Meredith Salimbeni, known as Mer Sal for short, is a Coloradan known for her poetry, and also known for serving as lead vocalist with various bands in the Los Angeles area. She and Kinsey met at a tribute concert to Wayne Shorter, where Sal had been invited to do some vocals. She sent Kinsey the outline of one of her songs in a more conventional form, and he soon went to work reinventing it musically, reharmonizing it and putting it more in the context of the fusion ethos, while preserving the lyrical center of the song. She was pleased and they began working together. Kinsey says that when he hears a demo of one of her songs, he likes just to listen to the melody and then completely remake the harmonic structure of the song, altering the chords in sometimes unexpected ways. They also apply their musical transformations to a few cover songs, including from Joni Mitchell, Blondie and Steely Dan. Mer Sal has the technical ability to negotiate the harmonic complexity of the arrangements with impressive pitch and phrasing, while sounding almost relaxed.
There is a rather large and varied cast of supporting musicians appearing, with the personnel different on each track. Among the guests are Kinsey’s Tribal Tech bandmate guitarist Scott Henderson; also guitarists Oz Noy, Nir Felder and others. Bassists include Jimmy Haslip formerly with Yellowjackets, and Tim LeFebvre, and drummers include Gary Novak and Gergo Borlai. With such notable jazz-rock players on board, the playing is naturally impressive, but Kinsey and Mer Sal keep the focus on the vocals and lyrics, though there are the expected opportunities for the players to do solos.
Opening the generous nearly-hour-long album is a piece that epitomizes the interesting mix between the elaborate fusion composition and the lyrical acumen. Tiny Circles also features Scott Henderson on guitar. <<>>
A piece called Seroquel is one of the most interesting lyrically, seemingly about swearing off drugs. The musical setting is another eclectic mixture of influences. <<>>
Innocent Victim seems to be about people confined for mental illness. The arrangement properly conveys the unsettling mood. <<>>
The first of the covers is Steely Dan’s Time Out of Mind, which would seem like a natural choice with Steely Dan’s reputation for the ornate harmonic structures in their songs. But Kinsey goes one further, reharmonizing the chorus of the song. <<>> A further twist is a kind of psychedelic sequence with backward vocals. <<>>
An original called Crying Smile takes an interesting spacey direction with hints of world music percussion. <<>>
The most unexpected cover on the album is Blondie’s Heart of Glass. Scott Kinsey admits to being a long-time fan of Blondie. The arrangement is curious mix with a kind of techno Latin beat. <<>>
The other cover is an unlikely medley of Joni Mitchell’s Down to You with Weather Report’s atmospheric instrumental piece Jungle Book. <<>> The Weather Report tune is interpolated into the middle section of the song. <<>>
The album ends with the closest thing to a conventional singer-songwriter track, more in keeping with Mer Sal’s own style of writing. Don’t Let Go even has an acoustic guitar line, but Kinsey and the band keep it interesting musically.
Adjustments, the new album from jazz-rock fusion keyboard player Scott Kinsey and singer-songwriter Meredith Salimbeni, a/k/a Mer Sal is a rare combination of the musical complexity and the instrumental prowess of the fusion scene with the literate, insightful songs of one might expect from a folkie. It helps that Kinsey’s musical compositions and arrangements allow Ms. Mer’s vocals to take the spotlight, and that Ms. Mer has the vocal ability to negotiate the intricacies of the music with its often labyrinthine harmonic structure. It is made even more interesting by the very creative arrangements of the cover tunes.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The electric and electronic instrumentation sounds warm and approachable, and Ms. Mer’s vocals are recorded with clarity in a way that nicely balances with the very electric backing.
Jazz-rock fusion and literate singer-songwriters would seem to be at opposite ends of some musical spectrum. Scott Kinsey and Mer Sal are able to unite them in a very impressive album.
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