On the delightful album-opener, she strings together greetings and endearments from more than a dozen languages from French to Japanese and including Farsi, Navajo, Setswana, and Zulu. The mesmerizing title track limns an inner panorama of discovery and potential. And on “Spicy,” she transforms the international kitchen into love poetry. “Every culture has its particular cuisine,” Tate explains, “and spices are important.” (And how often do you hear “Basmati rice” in a song’s lyrics?)
Tate came to jazz from folk music, and her voice retains the clear, artless sincerity associated with that genre. From folk music, she says, “I learned to appreciate the beauty of a singable melody, and the importance of telling a story with a lyric.” Soon she found herself drawn to the extended harmonies of classical music and jazz, and she turned to other songwriters who bring together elements of folk and jazz as inspiration for her own composing: Joni Mitchell, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Fagan and Becker of the band Steely Dan (along with the pathfinders of earlier generations, like Ellington and the Gershwins).
The success of any journey depends partly on finding the right traveling companions, and Tate has invited some of Chicago’s best. They include seasoned and versatile veterans: pianist Bobby Schiff, the indefatigable drummer Ernie Adams, and two world-traveled bassists in Marlene Rosenberg and Larry Gray (also heard on cello). But the retinue also features artists on the ascent: drummer Charles Heath IV and vibist Preyas Roy. And Tate could not have chosen two more experienced tour guides than the peerless flutist and reedman Steve Eisen (also heard on congas) and guitar guru Curtis Robinson (who also sings on “Bumble Bee”).
And when she does depart from what you’d expect, as on the delightful cha-cha version of “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” or “Squeeze Me” (remade into a thoroughly modern torch song), you won’t complain. Tate’s choices enhance rather than distract – a phrase that could serve as her motto. Throughout this album, she unselfishly spotlights the song rather than the singer; as a result, her musical gifts work their way into a listener’s heart, instead of trying to hijack one’s ears. These gifts include, at the most basic level, her tone – something like buckwheat honey, sweet but with substance, and just a little dark – and the welcoming clarity of her timbre, and her delicious intonation. (All of these make her voice a perfect fit for the Ellington oeuvre.) She doesn’t scat a whole lot, and when she does, she uses the technique as an arranger uses a horn riff or a woodwinds fill – to bridge a break in the melody, not to replace the melody altogether.
Geography, her fourth album, is the first to exclusively feature Tate’s own compositions, which offer an eclectic but unified vision. And Geography marks Tate’s continued growth as a singer: with each album she emerges as an even more compelling and self-assured performer, by turns kittenish, sharp, sexy, and soulful, and fully equipped to convey all the moods and meanings in her songs.
The combination of Tate, Ellington, and the 21st Century Review has an “of course” sheen about it: you hear the music, you think about its component elements, then you slap your forehead and say “of course,” because it all matches up so well that you can’t believe you didn’t think of it before.
Well, you know – Travel. It broadens the mind. As Tate proves here, it does a pretty good job on the heart as well.