THE STORY BEHIND SIGNS OF LIFE

by Grammy Award Winner Bob Blumenthal

In addition to the Signs of Life that burst through every note of this disc, Rondi Charleston has also filled it with unmistakable signs of growth. Her interpretive skills, already well-documented on her previous CDs, display added depth as she covers the music of five jazz and pop heavyweights. Her collaborative skills – one of the traits that mark Charleston as a jazz vocalist – remain steady and sure as she surrounds herself with a cast of imposing partners. Best of all, the inclusion of five originals signals that Charleston has graduated from a singer who sometimes composes to a serious songwriter, one with a broad vision and lyrical skills to match.

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“I just keep an awareness of the world around me,” she says in explanation of her newfound emphasis on original music. “If you’re open, you don’t have to search for songs – they come to you. But a lot of discipline is required to turn an idea into a lyric. My approach is to immerse myself in the world of each subject.” This openness has led her to seize upon inspirations from science and nature, history and lived experience, while the discipline leads Charleston to tell stories that are shaded with poetic precision.

DNA, one of three songs in which she collaborated with guitarist Dave Stryker, blends the theoretical and the personal, and a fascination with the work of biologist James Watson that was reinforced by a visit to relatives in Norway. “I had so much in common with my Norwegian family,” Charleston reports, “Not just physical characteristics but musicality and other traits, and I started thinking about how genetics and environment affect us. The song is basically about that thirst we each have to understand our own makeup.” It is also a lesson in how to marry the site-specific and the technical, in a story that weaves fords and the midnight sun, molecules and chromosomes into Stryker’s bold chords.

How the River Flows began with Strkyer’s melody inspiring Charleston to revisit a journey with deep familial meaning. “My husband Steve, daughter Emma and I were white-water rafting in Costa Rica,” she recalls, “And our raft flipped upside down. Everyone on the boat was sucked into a vortex, and each one of us had to be grabbed and pulled up separately. About 15 minutes passed before Emma and I saw Steve coming around the bend of the river in another boat. It was an amazingly primal, elemental feeling, a real second life, and I wanted to share that feeling through the song. The surging energy of Dave’s music, more like a jazz tune, fit the experience perfectly.”

The Wind Speaks harnesses another elemental voyage, in this case the lift and glide of a balloon ride. This “eye-opening view of the earth” inspired a subtle plea to grapple with climate change. The images are impeccable, with the line about being balanced at an angle taking on added meaning in the context of the tune’s 11/4 time signature. “Don’t try to dance to this one,” warns Charleston, who obviously had no problems in vocally navigating the treacherous rhythmic terrain. Here is another example of Stryker’s gift for bold melodies inspiring Charleston to create a lyric that is both deeply personal and universally meaningful.

While her collaborations with Stryker emerged from Charleston’s travels, Signs of Life, in which she created the music as well as the lyrics, is rooted in the cellar of her 1844 home. “The cellar was unfinished with dirt floors when we moved in; and the old spoons and newspapers I found down there inspired me to research the original occupants,” she says. “When I learned that the first owner was an inventor who built the clock on the church steeple across the street, my imagination began to run wild. I imagined his family during the Civil War, reading Walt Whitman and reports of the Gettysburg Address; and I realized that each of us leaves our own imprint, and that we should be mindful of what we leave behind.” This is Charleston’s debut as both composer and lyricist, and it is an auspicious start. The melody and harmonic colors maintain a natural flow while also delivering quiet surprise; and once again, the metaphors that Charleston has chosen are impeccable, especially the hour-glass, which rings as true here as the allusion to the double helix in DNA.

The bonus track, The Cave Knows contains Charleston’s lyrics to the music that piano giant Fred Hersch composed for the end titles of the documentary No Place on Earth. The award-winning film tells the story of Priest’s Grotto, a 77-mile system of caves in the Ukraine where 38 Jews successfully hid for 17 months during World War II. This incredible story of the will to survive moved Charleston to both meditate on evil and celebrate its defeat, balancing the shadows and light of existence in a performance that resonates like a prayer.

One more new tune with a different slant on light and shadow, In These Hours, evokes the magical glow in the late-afternoon prelude to sunset. Here Stryker collaborates with his wife, Tynia Thomassie, an author of children’s books making her debut as a lyricist.

The remaining titles and composers will be more familiar, and underscore Charleston’s musical roots as someone “raised in the ’70s by a father who played jazz piano and had jazz radio on all day. So Dizzy, Monk, Ella, Carole King and Paul Simon were all part of my early vocabulary. We’re each unique, we’re not just one thing.” She has chosen well, with the Monk and Shorter classics reinforcing concepts expounded in her originals, Randy Weston’s Babe’s Blues celebrating the wonders of childhood (another favorite Charleston topic), and the Simon and Jobim titles adding spirited dashes of percussive celebration.

Every member of the ensemble deserves praise for spirit and sensitivity. Stryker, the musical director, is a deep-blue soloist who excels on DNA and Footprints, while other tracks make space for the concentrated insights of saxophonist Ted Nash and the harmonica of Gregoire Maret. Ed Howard, Clarence Penn and Mayra Casales are a rhythm team never out of the pocket. And Brandon McCune confirms what those who have heard him with Nnenna Freelon, Abbey Lincoln and others have long known – that he is in the top tier of contemporary accompanists.

Charleston says her band is about “great storytelling, rhythmic energy and life-affirming music,” a description that just as surely applies to her own contribution. She blends the musical sophistication of great jazz with the universal truths of the pop singer-songwriters she admires, in her strongest program of music to date, one that I would characterize as elemental. It contains the earth of Signs of Life’s cellar floor, the water of How the River Flows, and the air of The Wind Speaks, while Charleston, Stryker et al. supply the fire.

Rondi for Signs of Life

Recorded at Avatar Studios, NY on June 12-13, 2012
Executive Producer: Suzi Reynolds
Produced by Dave Stryker and Rondi Charleston
Recorded and Mixed by Michael O’Reilly
Liner Notes: Bob Blumenthal
Composer, Lyricist, Vocals: Rondi Charleston
Composer, Guitar, Music Direction, Producer: Dave Stryker
Percussion: Mayra Casales
Bass: Ed Howard 
Harmonica: Grégoire Maret
Sax (Tenor): Ted Nash
Drums: Clarence Penn 

Bonus Track: The Cave Knows from the film No Place on Earth
Recorded at Sean Swinney Studios

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