‘Colors of Life’ is a rebirth of me as an artist. I’m putting myself out there like, ‘This is who I am, and this is what’s in store.’ I’m making the statement of, ‘I’m here. This is what I’m supposed to do. This is my destiny.’
Chicago-born, Raleigh, NC-based vocalist Jua Howard, 35, was well on his way to becoming a successful neo-soul artist. Think Luther Vandross and Donny Hathaway with a strong gospel and classical choir upbringing. But after awhile, after his self-released, 2007 album of mostly original ballads, Anticipation, and his music receiving heavy R&B/smooth jazz radio play, Howard felt restless for more.
“I got tired of what I was doing. With the neo-soul scene, everything started sounding the same,” Howard said. Several happy accidents led him to switch genres: His Chicago vocal coach, Sondra Davis, suggested he sing again after graduating from Atlanta’s Emory University with a B.A. in English, which sent him to D.C. to sing with the jazz-oriented Blackbyrds, and then he caught Nancy Wilson live.
“She had such presence. It just kinda made me change my way of thinking,” Howard said. He wanted to be a part of the improvisational process, as opposed to just standing there grabbing all the attention. “Jazz, which is based on improvisation, is about being a part of an ensemble and everyone communicating with each other to get the musical statement across,” he explained. “Even though I’m standing in front, I’m just one of the instruments telling a story to the audience. It’s about the story and the music, and paying respect and credence to the music.”
Howard studied in the Bay Area’s Berkeley Jazzschool Institute, now the California Jazz Conservatory. It was there that he earned the Mark Murphy Vocal Jazz Scholarship, the first student to do so, and studied under Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra vocal coach Raz Kennedy.
What came from those studies is Howard’s second major album, out since June 24, 2014 on Chocolate Chi Music. The 10-track Colors Of Life features the aspiring jazz vocalist and composer on four of his own tunes — three co-written with former Jazzschool instructor, pianist Matt Clark, and guitarist Shan Kenner, who’s on the record as a part of the band — and revamped standards by Bill Withers, Abbey Lincoln, Sam Rivers, Yip Harburg/Burton Lane, Bob Dorough, and James Williams and Pamela Baskin-Watson.
Onaje Allan Gumbs produced Howard’s album. Previously, the veteran New York producer/arranger did the same for Woody Shaw, Norman Connors, and Nat Adderley. He’s on the record as the pianist/organist, along with Kenner, bassist Gregory M. Jones, drummer Vince Ector, percussionist Gary Fritz, and tenor/soprano saxophonist Roger Byam.
From the opening of Rivers’ “Beatrice,” which Howard lyricized, to his original tune with Clark on the jazz jump-start, “Finally,” it’s clear the student came to play.
“Colors of Life is an honest expression of my life and the world around me,” Howard said. “The process of planning and recording this project with world-class-talent musicians taught me a great deal about my developing voice as an artist. I am eager for listeners to learn more about me through this music.”
There’s still the neo-soul/gospel remnants in the jazz-ready player, as he feels his way through the intricate grooves of the tough-to-nail melodically embedded lyrics, the high and low notes — often in one setting, and in between the instrumental runs. It’s an awful lot to consider. He has a full band here, one he must work around and with, without losing his voice in the tremendous musicality and, often, the tremendously overwhelming brass of the saxophone presence.
He seems most at ease on “Beatrice,” which relies on uttermost relaxation surging impossibly sudden levels at every turn. That he wrote the lyrics for this, as well as another roller-coaster of a difficult lyrical ride, “Finally,” speaks to his studied ambition. Executing such a hard, self-imposed task ahead of him is another matter.
He does well, though, letting the swing take him several octaves, impossibly slow and then rising high. Saxophonist Sam Rivers first put this instrumental on his 1964 debut album, Fuchsia Swing Song, for Blue Note. Jazzschool instructor Mark Levin played it during a jazz theory class, blowing Howard’s mind, filling him with possibility. The promise of this young vocalist as a jazz composer comes through in the hotter tempo, the ease of reinvention that flows effortlessly.
Cassandra Wilson and Jacky Terrasson’s “Old Devil Moon” also got Howard going. The pattern of rising shots becomes even more clear. As challenging as it can be to reach those highs and lows, Howard likes going there even when his voice threatens to waver and war, as it does here. Saxophonist Roger Byam gives it some body when Howard’s voice can’t.
The heavy big band horns of the usual numbers take a break on “Love Came On Stealthy Fingers,” as Kenner holds steady on a lighter, almost folky acoustic guitar effect. Howard’s voice here is tender, delicate, strong and steady on the slightest filament of will and understanding. He brings to light the highs and lows of the sentiment of this Dorough song justifiably, a slower tempo with predictable endings faring much better in his care.
Kenner and Howard’s “Colors Of Life” also highlights the singer’s ability to provide lift in his voice, as if his entire body is moving to the music’s ballet. Building a vocal choir beneath his lyricism adds the extra volume to accent dramatic builds.
One minor point: After awhile, some of the songs get jumbled together in the mind. James Williams/Pamela Baskin-Watson’s “You’re My Alter Ego” kind of blends in with “Old Devil Moon,” and “Time Past,” and… you get the idea. He needs a rhythmic break not just to show versatility, but to give the listener a chance to breathe and feel something different.