Amber Underwood’s debut album, This Is Me, is a compelling and diverse mixture of styles (from soul, to world, to techno, to smooth jazz, and to '70s R&B) with Underwood soloing deftly on flute over and above these many swift-to-slow-moving dappled currents.
And she calls on a handful of Kansas City’s very best to join in the groove. And groove it does, from Desmond "D. Professor" Mason on drums and an array of high-tech instruments, to Peter Schlamb on vibes, James Ward on bass and Eboni Fondren doing the vocals.
Sleep Snatcher opens with a catchy, 8-bit, low-fi video game feel, and transitions into a soulful smooth tune, featuring Challis O'Neal on trumpet. Tim Ogutu chimes in on guitar. Unusual for a regional jazz album, this tune also includes Bryan Alford soloing on steel pans, or drums, a whiff of sea salt breeze in Kansas.
Strobelight demonstrates Underwood's sense of style and effortlessness, both as a soloist and as a contemporary music practitioner. The tune is a smooth, smoky, sexy pleasure, like expensive gin.
Alter Ego On the song Alter Ego Underwood demonstrates some complicated, sophisticated chops, including the use of flutter tongue, bent notes, and other extended techniques without being flashy or interrupting the intoxicating flow of this house music type tune. Infused with both hand drum samples and modern hip hop bass, the tune makes a world tour.
Euphoria the longest song on the album, has a feel-good, meandering, soulful feel. It features Underwood on flute, Paula Saunders voice, and Peter Schlamb vibes.
Not all jazz albums that feature a strong soloist feel contemporary, feel hip, but this album certainly does. It captures the feel of today, primarily through groove and drums, but also through a variety of means, including its diversity of contemporary styles. I can imagine kids playing this album. And that’s saying something. Most kids seem to have little interest in solo flute. But, with this album, they may. They can. They can groove to it. (And, I hope they do.)
Although most of the tracks are instrumental, FlutieWhooooo feels like a hip, B-side song straight from a P-Funk album and includes original lyrics and a made-for-radio monologue. The song includes the distinctive, liquid voice of Eboni Fondren, singing, styling. The song celebrates funky flutienastiness and is accompanied by tambourine, hand claps, and an infectious electric bass groove that even Bootsy Collins might give an appreciative nod. (The song is pure fun and can you can dance to it.)
This album will likely appeal to a wide audience, including young people, popular music fans, and contemporary listeners. And that, is to be admired and appreciated.
Rooted in the tradition, but aware and adept with contemporary forms, Underwood's many influences are on full display in this multifaceted album. When the pandemic ends, I look forward to hearing her in person. (You should too!)