By Brent Black
Stunning cover art welcomes you to an equally stellar release from Rondi Charleston. Signs of Life is a marvelous look at the musical make up of one of the finest female vocalists across any genre of music. Honesty, passion and a genuine sense of musical integrity run through what is arguably Rondi Charleston’s most successful release to date. Intimate in presentation yet with a depth that goes past the heart and examines the human condition from the soul of a dynamic artist whose exponential growth since Who Knows Where The Time Goes is nothing short of amazing.
The A list ensemble cast includes guitarist and musical director Dave Stryker. Along with Stryker we find Brandon McCune ( Abbey Lincoln, Nnenna Freelon ) on piano, Ed Howard ( Shirley Horn, Pat Metheny ) on bass, Clarence Penn (Michael Brecker, Christian McBride ) on drums and Myra Casales ( Tito Puente, Celia Cruz ) on percussion. An added bonus includes featured soloists Gregoire Maret on harmonica and Ted Nash on tenor saxophone. “The Cave Knows” is a bonus track co-written with the brilliant Fred Hersch and composed for the closing credits of the soon to be release film No Place On Earth which has garnered numerous accolades from critics and contemporaries alike. The genesis of this composition is the true story of 38 Jews that survived living in a cave system that stretched 77 miles deep in the heart of the Ukraine and it is from deep inside the earth these brave souls survived for 17 months until the close of World War II. In a brief but enchanting conversation with Charleston at the JEN Convention held here in Louisville two years ago, Rondi Charleston reminded me of the importance of a critic to always address the “why” question be it good news or bad. Keeping this lesson in mind a key to the heartfelt presentation with Signs Of Life is the ease and natural ability that Charleston is able to harness whether she is delivering an original composition or reworking a classic such as “Footprints” from Wayne Shorter. There are similar artists in the tightly clustered pack of female vocalists that are as passionate about the world they live in and their responsibilities both as an individual and as an artist but most of these artists tend to venture into the abyss of the self indulgent when singing about politics, religion or their riff on the human condition. Signs Of Life is an open self portrait where Charleston avoids the self indulgent but manages to open her heart to reveal a wonderfully organic buffet of stories where the listener can pick and choose to their liking.
Other gems from Signs Of Life include “Spirit Voices” from Paul Simon and “Reflections” from Thelonious Monk. One particularly compelling Charleston original is “How The River Flows” which chronicles a near death experience while rafting with her family in Costa Rica and a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley which resulted in an eye opening experience of a world coming to grips with climate change. Rondi Charleston is emotionally invested in her craft as well as the world she lives in but presents her own life experience without the slightest bit of pretentiousness that trips up so many vocalists when attempting to tackle the hot topics of the day. While I personally try and keep my music and politics in separate compartments with my politics labeled “break glass in a case of emergency” there is that musical middle ground and innate gift that Charleston has to not only make the listener feel but to think.
All the stars were in perfect alignment for Signs Of Life. Rondi Charleston is a critically acclaimed and wildly successful artist and here she raises the bar for her contemporaries to follow.