Live: Imani Uzuri Brings the Gypsy Life to Joe’s Pub

Imani Uzuri
Joe’s Pub
Friday, June 1

Better Than: Being sad that Alice Coltrane and Cesaria Evora are dead and that Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill don’t make albums together.

The Gypsy Diaries is North Carolina homegirl Imani Uzuri’s second self-produced release, and it proves that major-label support can become irrelevant with shrewd uses of online tools like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, as well as a fanbase that include the likes of The Roots, Bill Laswell, and Talib Kweli. With a voice that would sound equally at home on an opera stage or a disco 12-inch, Uzuri is a constant surprise on record, seamlessly combining jazz, classical, country and blues motifs into highly personalized compositions.

Like so many American musicians these days — the Berklee graduate who moved to Rio to help revive the choro or the Brooklyn jam bands who have defected from R&B and hip-hop to play Afrobeat — Uzuri appears to be opting out of the pop-radio rat-race to reinvent herself as a “worldbeat” artist, finding more than enough inspiration in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Oumou Sangare to be concerned about narrowing her musical tastes in hopes of competing with BeyoncĂ© or Taylor Swift.

Uzuri weaves sitar, violin, cello, Japanese flutes and Middle Eastern percussion into passionate accompaniment for the bluesy growls and soaring coloratura riffs that give her songs their multiethnic flavor. On short a cappella pieces like “O, Woman,” her melody flows from dark contralto to bright soprano in a circle-shout pattern drawing from both Celtic and African sources. The equally subtle “Beautiful” adds guitar, but it somehow evokes both a muezzin’s call and a cantor’s solo. Time spent with the Romany people of Hungary convinced Uzuri that she was not the only travelling musician who found such similarities exciting, and The Gypsy Diaries comes together like a sonic roadmap across space and time. Gypsy life serves as the underpinning metaphor for desire, loneliness, love, loss, spiritual yearning, and the way she wields it points the way toward a new, more expansive definition of “soul music.”

Uzuri and her band had been ramping up to Friday night’s album release party since 2010, when she first tested some of this material on a Joe’s Pub audience. (Her co-producer and guitarist Christian Ver Halen is at the center of The Rooftop, one of NYC’s most dynamic indie-soul collectives.) As a bandleader, she has a remarkably syncretic ear, able to hear emotional concordances and tonal similarities between an amazing array of folk musics and instrumentation.

On Friday night she was joined onstage by most of the sidemen (and women) who helped create the new album, with cello and sometimes flute filling in for missing violin and vocal. Each member of her stellar quintet contributed brief improvisations throughout the set, and earned ample applause. But with so many friends and colleagues in the audience, the band didn’t play the album straight through, which would have shown off its narrative flow and masterful sequencing to best effect. Instead, Imani worked the crowd like a pentacostal preacher, cracking jokes and pulling guest stars out of the audience for unrehearsed cameos; this disrupted the cohesive mood of the album and left no time for an encore. As a whole, The Gypsy Diaries could be transcendent concert music, but once the atmosphere changed from concert hall to house party, a bit of the magic this ensemble can invoke was lost.

Evening highlights included the Balkanized bolero “Meet Me at the Station” (introduced as “the sex song”), and a funk-rock rendition of “Gathering” in which the singer channels a young Miriam Makeba while bass guitarist Fred Cash reminded us why Jimi Hendrix formed the Band of Gypsies. Equally memorable were the Clark Sister affirmations on “I Sing the Blues” and the moment when Uzuri outed herself as a pantheist who practices every religion because “you never know what might work.” When dancing, Uzuri underscored this point with a holy-roller shout, the Candomble shoulder shake, and a dancehall grind. Even her sitarist Neel Murgai shook a tail feather in the end, playing his daf barefoot while twirling like a Dervish. Only Marika Hughes’s pizzicato and Kaoru Watanabe’s eloquent flute moved me more.

Critical bias: My favorite jazz-fusion album from the ’70s is Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer.

Overheard: “You look hot!” An audience member to Uzuri after she quipped that no one applauded her butt once her back was turned.

Random notebook dump: Three songs here would have slid completely towards the Jill Scott/Angie Stone/India Arie end of the spectrum, except for the fact that Uzuri likes to shift tempo several times in the same composition.

Set list:

  1. Beautiful
  2. Whisperings (We Are Whole)
  3. I Sing the Blues
  4. Meet Me At the Station
  5. Winter Song
  6. Gathering
  7. You Know Me You Love Me
  8. Soul Still Sings
  9. Dream Child
  10. I’m Ready/She Came Traveling

Published in: Village Voice, June 4, 2012