Music note: New discs from Yohannes Tona, Aimee K. Bryant, and Alicia Wiley

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The tail end of 2007 made nice noise for discerning Twin Cities music lovers, with CD debuts by Yohannes Tona and Aimee K. Bryant—and the arrival of Alicia Wiley’s newest. Now that holiday spending is done putting a dent in your wallet, kick off 2008 by treating yourself to at least one of these albums, if not all three.

Bassist Yohannes Tona, the session ace behind several top names around Minneapolis and St. Paul (including Wiley and gospel stars Darnell Davis and the Remnants) put out Sand From the Desert and ears immediately perked up to hear what this cat had done in the studio with his band. Well, what he did was to go in there and come out with a disc of fusion music that’ll have you mindful of what the genre is all about: taking things to an esoteric place without leaving feel-good behind. You get to think and have fun at the same time.

The band on Sand From the Desert is the Yohannes Tona Band: Tona, Peter Vircks (sax), Brian Ziemniak (keys), Brian Kendrick (drums), and—when commitments don’t conflict—Bryant on vocals. Guests on the album include Stokley from Mint Condition, renowned pianist Nachito Herrera, and spoken word siren Sha Cage.

“Eccelesiastis” demonstrates the less-is-more school of keeping a listener spellbound. It’s sparse, with just enough embellishment to let you know some cold-blooded monsters are taking care of business. The dreamy “High-Loga” is a gorgeous, laid-back tapestry that keeps you hypnotized long after you’re done listening. On “The Kerims” Bryant sings sweet and the band breaks it down in an ethereal tour de force. Bottom line, Sand From the Desert burns. One of the album’s greatest strengths is that Tona never hogs the show. He chooses when to step out front—airing incredible chops—and when to let his players air theirs, which they do to wondrous effect. This is a rich offering that it’s hard to get enough of.

Becoming is the eagerly-awaited answer for fans and industry peers who’ve long asked: when will Aimee K. Bryant put out an album? The superb vocalist has blown theatre crowds away, tantalizing in musical productions: Black Nativity and Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Penumbra Theatre Company and Two Queens, One Castle at Mixed Blood Theatre highlight a heavy track record. So, a little anticipation is understandable.

Bryant doesn’t disappoint, not by a long shot. R&B, gospel, and jazz make for an intriguing blend—the key being that Aimee K. Bryant, quite frankly, can sing anything. She has that rare strength, precise tonality; and, though she’s steeped in soul music, she probably could sing the hell out of country-western music were she so moved. Indeed, it might prove frighenting to hear her sing the blues. On record, she keeps her vast range in rein—it would take a double-disc to do real justice—for a streamlined showcase. Powerfully emotive, by turns subtle and stark, Becoming includes gems like the lighthearted “Dance,” the beautiful ballad “Do You Know,” and the sweet heat of “Kiss Me.” Can’t go wrong with this one.

Alicia Wiley’s Changes is a tight set caught live at the Phipps Theater. Following Alicia Wiley (winner of a Minnesota Music Award for best female vocalist) and In Your Sight (an EP and DVD), the new disc sees this accomplished artist in fine form. Accompanied by Tona, Peter Vircks (sax), Andres Prado (guitar), and Kevin Washington and Brandon Commodore on drums, Wiley handily demonstrates the means by which she came by her serious reputation—at the young age of 25—as a uniquely gifted composer-lyricist, vocalist, and pianist. From the haunting “Sink Or Swim” (a hypnotic, bluesy ballad) to the Latin-flavored “La Jugadora” to a sultry take on Tom Waits’s “Telephone Call From Istanbul,” Wiley casts the fascinating spell of a virtuoso at work.

Wiley’s lyrics are strong enough to stand alone: wizened, bittersweet poetry that compels as fully as her inventive music writing. For instance, get next to the existential grace of “Echoes”: “I’m calling on the rain/to wash away uncertainty/’til I remember grace/’til I hear echoes of a dreamer’s fate/The silence will be broken/walls will tumble down/i’ll trade in all my armor tomorrow/circle one more round/to keep the peace alive/this love beyond compassion.”

Yohannes Tona, Aimee K. Bryant, Alicia Wiley—it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.

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