reviewed by Chris Matei
Now here’s a sentence I didn’t expect to ever be able write: it’s been a startlingly good month for hyperintelligent Canadian fusion-jazz releases. First we got to dive into in the depths of Badbadnotgood’s virtuosic, daring IV, and now comes the positively dizzying whirl of horns and keys and pop-meets-soul eclecticism that is Urbana Champaign, the newest release from former Shaani Cage member Aleem Khan.
There’s a lot to digest here: classic R&B on opener “Cameo”, “Day in the Life”-style honking freakouts interrupting claret-coloured, Marais-sweetened soul on “Dark Chocolate”, droning, hypnotic, reedy pulses and free-associative saxophone flirtations on the nine-minute title track – but at the heart of Urbana Champaign there is the distinct feel of a mind at work – expressed in closely knit harmonies of horns and vocals, traipsing bass, and delicate, interwoven movements of clavinet and organ.
Mid-album cut “Marzipan” takes a tight, clean jazz arrangement and cuts it through with dissonances ringing out on woody, dark piano that sounds like it’s being hammered in a different era than our own. The celebration of dissonance might be something of a theme in Urbana Champaign, expressing conflicts of place, space, and feeling in the nodes of Urbana, IL and Calgary, AB. Unexpected clashes work well in the album’s favour, popping up where they’re least expected – often right alongside wide, warm moments of soulful uplift.
This is not to say that Champaign is all noodly brainy stuff and no funky moves. This is particularly evident in both acts of the two-parter “Jubilee,” where Khan delivers the album’s most accessible and vibrant material. The first act morphs from a seductive study on Clav and Rhodes into a bumping nigh-on disco arrangement, and the second hides a wealth of instrumental detail in the corners of its ultra-smooth grooves.
Recorded by Khan and Jonathan Reynolds with mastering at Otic Sound by Josh Stevenson, Urbana Champaign sounds lush and emotive throughout: the thrum and shine of horns, the woody click and whirr of organ, the distinct timbre of Khan’s vocals.
Aleem Khan has put together an album with really compelling powers in Urbana Champaign. It’s as bubbly as its namesake beerage at times, boozy-warm and soft at others, and yet also weighted with the grim foreknowledge of the next morning. Complex and inviting, it’s well worth a careful and open-minded listen.
Top Tracks: “Marzipan,” “Urbana Champaign,” “Jubilee: Act II”
Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *swoop*