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Millicent B James: Moyo, Vol.1 EP

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Releases by local bands always make us nervous; if they’re no good, what do we say? Sadly for everyone else, this new EP from Biddolphian Millicent sets a new benchmark: it’s wonderful.

She’s is not a novice: a composer, cellist and vocalist, she regularly sings with the RBC Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra and RBC Jazz Orchestra (RBC being Royal Birmingham Conservatoire).

The sleeve gives you some idea of where she’s coming from. “Moyo is a collection of me becoming more comfortable with my identity as a black woman, and not being afraid to just make music that is about these things that I have experienced,” she told us via a Press release.

“Moyo” is the Swahili word for “heart”. It opens strikingly, just James singing a wordless tune that sounds tribal and African; jazz sounds soon come into play and there’s a lush, new-agey kind of vibe before the piano calls halt and James starts singing actual words, the lyrics harking back to 1854 and escape; possibly slaves on the Underground Railway, the network of routes and safe houses that smuggled them from misery to safety.

The other instruments come in and it becomes a more conventional jazz sound, a lot going on but kept chilled (despite the lyrics) by James’s smooth vocals. There’s a nice sax solo and some neat guitar: the topic might be serious but the music has a light touch. “You have been blessed, don’t be afraid / Your enemies will no longer trigger your fears” she sings.

Enchanting opens with birdsong and then some cool, lovely sax, escaping from predictability with pleasingly scratchy cello. There is no singing, the sound somewhere between jazz-tinged ambience and the music from a plush kids’ fantasy series.

Let The Rain Fall is a luscious jazz song, possibly the standout, though it’s all good. It both adheres to and ignores the conventions for easy listening jazz; the opening is pop-jazz and we thought it was going to settle into predictability and so it does, until the slightly wonky sax solo and it builds as if for a crescendo before a couple of short solos and a tour of various genres: at one point it sounds momentarily like an electro-hit pop chorus, at another like a rock-based jazz outfit via the Waterboys and then comes a shimmering end.

Torn closes the EP, the Press release saying it fuses themes and motifs fuse from the other three tracks. A fluttering synth underpins it and the instruments lay down a hypnotic sound. Given the topic of the opener, “How am I supposed to move on if you can’t let me go? / How can I change if you stay the same?” could be a plea from James to those who persist in believing the old ways are best.

An excellent EP, probably chiefly jazz but with world and gospel thrown in, the gospel/world mix reminding us in places of a native American album we bought in New Mexico a while back (Johnny Whitehorse, check him out).

The sound quality is also very professional; we guess the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire has some nice studios.

Musicians are Mike Anning (saxophone), David Sear (trombone), Millicent James (vocals, cello and synths), Stella Roberts and Lucas Kelly (piano), Steve Saunders (guitar), Matt Hollick (bass) and Jonno Gaze (drums).

It was released on 17th August (2020) and will be available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes and other platforms.

Try millicentbjames.bandcamp.com or millicentjames.com

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