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Sarah Elizabeth Charles: Blank Canvas (Stretch/Ropeadope)

Review of the latest album by the vocalist/composer and her Scope quintet

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Cover of Sarah Elizabeth Charles album Blank Canvas
Cover of Sarah Elizabeth Charles album Blank Canvas

Musically, Sarah Elizabeth Charles has been stretching her wings since the release of her last album with her band Scope, 2017’s Free of Form. The Brooklyn vocalist and composer toured and recorded with French-Tunisian saxophonist Yacine Boulares’ world-jazz combo Ajoyo and collaborated with trumpeter Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah. Tone, her 2020 duo album with pianist/husband Jarrett Cherner, seemed to process raw emotions in real time. Her new Scope project Blank Canvas captures Charles in a very different place: reflective, self-possessed, and reaching out with a voice that’s as beautiful as it is arresting.

With guitarist Jordan Peters joining her longtime bandmates—pianist/keyboardist Jesse Elder, bassist Burniss Earl Travis II, and drummer John Davis—Charles opens the album reciting “Guest House,” a Rumi poem (via Coleman Barks) that speaks of mortal arrivals and departures. Sonically the album is all over the map, but Charles is a steady guide. The first two songs, “Borders” and “Blank Canvas,” are fierce, arena-sized ballads with rock production. After the stormy catharsis Charles gazes inward, leading to the gauzy ballad “Malba.”

The album’s emotional centerpiece is a taut, spacious deconstruction of Max Roach/Oscar Brown Jr.’s famously unfinished We Insist! anthem “Freedom Day,” which adds Adjuah into the mix on his self-designed Adjuah Bow. Plucking the string instrument, he also contributes to Charles’ brief, aching evocation of her lost sibling “Brother,” which she co-wrote with Adjuah. Thematically and texturally, the concluding four tracks almost feel like a self-contained suite, shimmering with sharp observations and self-revelations, starting with her sympathetic portrait of a relationship in extremis, “Out Loud.” The atmospheric “Blind Emotions” evokes turmoil with lapidary vocal tracks, while “BE the Solution” offers a path toward inner peace. Closing with “The Message,” a lithe incantation, Charles sounds renewed, revived, and ready for her next adventure.

Learn more about Blank Canvas on Bandcamp

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Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.