Bilal Croons Genre-Blending Set at Black Cat
Posted 3/25/2013

Although the music world knows Bilal as a soul singer, his spectacular sold-out concert on March 15 at Washington, D.C.’s Black Cat venue betrayed his jazz bona fides. Bilal fronted a seven-piece band in support of A Love Surreal (eOne), his mesmerizing new disc, which centers on the art of love and war.

Bilal doesn’t just deliver lyrics; he electrifies them with his emotive, pliable voice that can zoom from a gravely baritone register to a piercing falsetto with unerring control and speed. He also colors his often-unpredictable melodies with wounded sighs, blood-curdling shrieks and sensual growls.

Two of the most galvanizing songs ventured to such harrowing depths: “Astray,” a sexy lament directed at a wandering, chemically dependent paramour, and the ballad “Slipping Away,” which touches upon a fading love affair. On the latter, Bilal’s testifying serenade and shouts approached the intensity of vintage Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as background vocalists sang dark, gothic harmonies and Dai Miyazaki delivered a razor-sharp electric guitar solo. Considering the emotional tenor of most of the songs, Bilal made good use of the concert’s sole cover song, “Too High,” Stevie Wonder’s classic cautionary tale of a once-promising girl succumbing to drug addiction.

The band followed Bilal’s improvisational inclinations with deft agility through dusky blues, libidinous funk, hallucinogenic balladry, and barrelhouse rock. The songs’ extended form allowed for some noteworthy solos from the band members, particularly keyboardist Corey Bernhard on gangster-leaning “Winning Hand,” the Beatles-reminiscent “Right At The Core,” and the swinging “Back To Love,” on which Bilal scatted a shining improvisation, mimicking a muted trumpet.

After a rousing applause, Bilal treated the crowd to a sizzling encore of signature tunes—“Soul Sista” and “Sometimes”—from his 2001 cult-classic debut, 1st Born Second (Interscope), and “All Matter,” a tune that first appeared on Double-Booked (Blue Note), a 2009 disc by the vocalist’s frequent music collaborator, keyboardist Robert Glasper.

Before the concert, DownBeat sat down with Bilal about the inspiration behind A Love Surreal, how he folds his jazz pedigree from New York’s New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music into his avant-soul music, and the likelihood of him releasing a conventional jazz album.

What did you want to do thematically and musically with the new disc, A Love Surreal that was different from your previous disc, Airtight Revenge

A Love Surreal is a more thematic album, kind of in the theme of Edger Allan Poe. Airtight’s Revenge was just a collection of songs. I wanted to write a lot of dark tales from a blues standpoint. I didn’t want to talk really about love; I wanted to talk about life.

I look at A Love Surreal more as an art piece. I was inspired by Salvador Dali after I went to see his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When you stand in front of the actual paintings, it almost feels as if you can jump inside of it. I left that exhibition thinking, “Man, I really want to make music like that with mad layers, like you’re inside of a world.”

As a formal jazz studies student who folds in so many different genres, how did you conceptualize your approach to melody?

My singing style has a rugged approach. I consider myself more of a musician than a singer. I don’t really approach things in a singer way.

Now that we’re seeing the rising popularity of jazz crooners such as José James, Gregory Porter and Milton Suggs, any chance of you recording a jazz disc?

I feel like I’m doing that already. I don’t like to be obvious with what I’m doing with jazz. I’ve always done music that was an eclectic blend of a lot of different things. Jazz is the base of my music. When I write my music, I take it from that standpoint of jazz—all that stuff I learned in school. I think that’s one of the reasons why every night when we play the music, it’s different, because of how loosely we put the music together. I think this new album is the most jazz-like album that I’ve done, but I try to create something that’s different and that hasn’t been done before. My whole thing is to have my own approach and sound like Miles Davis did.

On the new record, which songs are closest to your heart?

I really don’t have any favorite songs because I look at this album as a project. I feel like all of these songs were ripped from me already, even before I recorded them [laughs]. Every time I listen to this record, I’m still critiquing it.

What’s your approach to songwriting?

All of these songs either started from the guitar or on the piano. There are exceptions, like “West Side Girl.” That was a track that was given to me. “Never Be the Same” was a track already. With all of the songs that I write, I come to the studio with the riff and I’ll sing the melody, and we’ll go from there. If the song can hold up on its own with just you singing it and playing the piano or guitar, then it’s a good song.

—John Murph


Bilal (Photo: Jati Lindsay)

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