Before I get into the body of this review a few words about Blue Note in the 21st century. For many this iconic label is synonymous with hard bop and therefore principally defined by its success in the ‘50s and ‘60s. As a result, the pragmatic business strategy of recent label Presidents Bruce Lundvall and Don Was, which mixes the old with the new, has not always been well received in Jazz circles, with claims that the Blue Note’s output has become watered down by new artists who seem to have little connection to the music perceived to remain at the label’s heart. However commercial success lies in attracting a broad spectrum of tastes which in turn can benefit the entire label. For present day Blue Note this means a roster of talents as diverse as Norah Jones, Annie Lennox, Gregory Porter, Charles Lloyd, Logan Richardson and GoGo Penguin. Whatever the merits of these particular arguments, for me it is important when reviewing their music to make a distinction between the legacy of the label, which is undoubtedly important, and the degree to which that should influence current or future releases.
All of which brings us to Kandace Springs’ debut album, “Soul Eyes”. Although the music has threads of jazz and soul woven into it, it is essentially an adult-orientated pop confection. It is apparent from the coverage surrounding the release that it was important to involve those who have a track record of success making similar albums, presumably on the grounds that success breeds success. The producer, Larry Klein, has worked with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Lizz Wright, Herbie Hancock and Melody Gardot and the project was overseen by Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers who are best known for their work as songwriters and producers for the likes of Rihanna and Christina Aguilera (as well as running SRP Music Group, who Springs is signed to).
For me the results are mixed with more misfires than hits, which left me wondering just exactly what musical identity Springs is seeking. The opening track, “Talk to Me”, is the kind of gentle pop ballad that her label mate Norah Jones is renowned for. This formula is used again and again making it difficult to discount the notion that Blue Note are grooming the next Norah Jones. Whether it’s “Neither Old Nor Young” or the straight up balladry of “Place to Hide” or “Fall Guy”, these songs have a certain smart sophistication to them but lack any fire in the belly. Put another way they are the kind of songs that are perfect for creating a relaxed atmosphere whilst you drink your double shot, single origin, skinny latte in your local coffee shop or advertising the latest must-have product.
All of which is unfortunate because Springs’ vocals have an easy, pleasantly cool and expressively soulful tone to them. For me her delivery works best on mid-tempo numbers like “Thought It Would Be Easier” and “Novocaine Heart”. “Thought..” has a wonderfully relaxed feel to it; southern soul stylings drenched with sweet organ bursts from Pete Kuzma and a great hook in the title. “Novocaine….” is the more energetic of the two with a “Mercy Mercy Me” vibe over a catchy baseline.
Of course being with Blue Note has distinct advantages when you want to increase the jazz quotient. There are three Jazzier ballads – the smoky, late night blues of the title track, a vocal cover of the Mal Waldron classic, and “Too Good Too Last” co-written by Springs, both featuring Terence Blanchard on trumpet. The cream of the crop is “Rain Falling”, a song written by Springs in her teens. It’s a confident, assured performance and rounds off the album on a high.
As debuts go there are some signs of hope within a release that has unfortunately become muddled by covering a number of different bases. It will be interesting to see what direction subsequent releases take.