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Abram Wilson: Ride! Ferris Wheel to the Modern Day Delta

Attention spans endangered as they are, a jazz concept album hardly seems advisable for a young player still searching for an audience.

With people still getting used to the idea of a rapper/instrumentalist, British saxophonist/MC Soweto Kinch dares to up the ante considerably with A Life in the Day of B19-Tales of the Tower Block. The 29-year-old’s second album and follow-up to 2003’s Conversations with the Unseen is the first of a planned two-part concept album (its companion, The Basement Fables, still awaits release) concerning the mundane but romantic lives of a Birmingham apartment’s three residents. Surprisingly detailed in its narrative and rich in texture, Kinch displays an almost startling progression from his impressive debut. Unfortunately, however, A Life in the Day too often slips under the weight of its own ambition.

It’s a question of balance: Simply put, Kinch has yet to prove he is as engaging an MC as he is a saxophonist; A Life in the Day, however, is split fairly evenly between his two unequal talents, which makes following, let alone caring about, the album’s narrative a somewhat difficult task. On “10:30 Appointment,” voicing the character of “S,” Kinch revels in his late-’90s backpacker veneration, “verbally weight lifting” with a multi-syllabic information-overload rap style reminiscent of a subdued Pharoahe Monch. His verbal weaknesses are only further exposed when placed between “The Mission,” with its lush refrain, and Kinch’s distinct, seemingly haphazard rhythmic shifts, and “Adrian’s Ballad,” on which he and label-mate trumpeter/vocalist Abram Wilson exercise some welcomed restraint. For now, Kinch is best when he lets his saxophone tell the stories. Like he says, “Nowadays everybody raps.”

Wilson himself actually suffered from this same affliction. His previous record, 2005’s Jazz Warrior, found the trumpeter all too often neglecting his slick New Orleans phrasing and full-bodied tone to showcase his relatively inferior skills on the mic, both as rapper and vocalist. With his latest offering, however, Ride! Ferris Wheel to the Modern Day Delta, Wilson seems to have struck a healthy balance between his unequal talents. Rather than present himself as two artists for the price of one, Wilson now employs his vocal talents judiciously to complement his bluesy vamping compositions.

Like A Life in the Day, Ride! is also a concept album, but where the former is messily overloaded with ideas (some worthy, others not), Ride! follows a much looser narrative, one that doesn’t look to compete with the music for the listener’s attention. Assuming the character of Albert Jenkins, a Mississippi trumpeter determined to escape the mundane future already decided for him, Wilson opens the record chanting, “I want more for me than this.” That sense of his character’s desperation is stitched subtly through each of album’s eclectic styles-blues, hip-hop, New Orleans second-line-culminating with the album’s hypnotic centerpiece, “I Want it All.” Wilson’s phrases echo Jenkins’ desire, seamlessly blending the narrative’s thread with its soundtrack. Ride! is versatile without being indecisive, ambitious without being reckless. Kinch should take note.

Originally Published