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Ellen Andrea Wang’s bass and vocals shine in melancholy jazz frames

Last updated on October 23, 2020

As a bassist, I am drawn to work with strong bass aspects. This means that in the process of getting into jazz, I have naturally been drawn to bassist/composers of jazz/jazz+ music: particularly Joshua Crumbly and now Ellen Andrea Wang. Wang’s third album Closeness not only displays her bass and composing work, but showcases her smooth, easygoing vocals in several tunes.

Wang’s trio of bass, drums (Jon Fa̎lt), and guitar (Rob Luft) is an impressive outfit. In the early tracks of the record, Wang tends to stay in the background and let Luft lead the way with his (mostly) delicate, inventive guitar work. “Erasmus,” “Waiting for Ellinor,” and “Closeness” each feature Luft’s beautiful work over tastefully sparse contributions from Wang. Falt is a drummer who prefers to stay in the pocket and lean back on the groove, and thus the overall approach of this album is quiet, intricate, and intimate. “Recognise” is so minimalist as to be ambient in places. Yet the album never becomes flat or staid; the trio handles quiet work without losing intensity.

Another prominent approach is for Luft and Fa̎lt to create spaces for Wang’s gentle, smooth vocals. Wang’s versions of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” (here styled as “Nobody Knows”) and “Wayfaring Stranger” reimagine American spirituals/hymns in a melancholy, deeply-felt way. The trio’s haunting, deliberate, soulful version of Pat Metheny’s “This Is Not America” is remarkably relevant for our time lyrically and musically.

A couple tracks expand the trio’s approach. Wang & co. ratchet up the intensity and really get going on fast-paced jam session “Strange Flower.” Wang takes the first crack at the melody before the trio launches into a full-on workout. All three of them go at it with great gusto over the 5:29, with Luft breaking out the electric guitar heroics in places. Wang’s version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” starts with a two-minute solo bass performance from Wang; she accompanies herself on vocals. The back half of the piece is way more free than the rest of the mostly-structured release, with the drums, guitar, and bass all seemingly going in different directions.

This is a powerful release that shows off Wang’s vocal and composition skill. Closeness is an album that I can (and will) live with for a long time. Highly recommended.