Emma-Jean Thackray's 'Yellow' Is Too Exciting to be Merely Branded "Jazz Fusion"
Published Jul 21, 2021One hesitates to pin Yellow, Emma-Jean Thackray's official debut full-length, down with a reductive label such as "jazz fusion." The genre name isn't really indicative of much except the act of fusing the jazz tradition with something else (even the "jazz" label is contentious, particularly as of late) and relying on such an empty descriptor does this music a disservice.
Part of what makes this album so irreducible and magical is the variety of Thackray's stylistic ingredients. Much like the rest of the London fusion renaissance currently taking place, the influences of funk, hip-hop and dance permeate nearly every composition. There are also a few refreshing detours scattered throughout, such as the irresistible gospel breakdown of the title track and the Bond-movie splendor of "Spectre."
As with many of her innovative peers (Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia), Thackray uses these influences as a vehicle to realize the many facets of her vision. Sure, a track may begin as a seemingly conventional take on the British scene, but by the end, the listener is plunged into a glorious eruption of sound. The rhythm section enters full-throttle jam mode, the horns wail on assertive ostinatos, the orchestra detonates and Thackray clones her voice into a million Thackrays. Any arbitrary barriers that exist between genres are vanquished in the tidal wave of her ingenuity. So much happens at once across the entire mix, and yet the sense of clarity remains astonishingly intact.
The lyrical content of Yellow is almost entirely utopian, making for a soul-cleansing and rousing experience. Thackray's pen game seeks to emotionally and spiritually engage the listener. She speaks in evocative, colorful imagery, which serves more to compliment and embellish the surrounding musical landscape than to function as a stand-alone message. There is often a literalism to the way she tackles themes, as "Third Eye" asks the listener to "raise your consciousness with your third eye," and a George Clinton-esque request demanding the "green funk" is uttered throughout a track fittingly titled "Green Funk."
At the center of her opus is an astronomical motif, with the most dynamic compositions featuring choirs shouting the names of celestial bodies, beautifully blending Sun Ra's interstellar motifs with Thackray's spiritual influences. Refrains such as "hands up and reach for the sky, the sun gives life" and "I call to Venus in the sky, she shows me loooooooove!" double both as rallying cries for humanity and an appeal to a higher power.
The album's tidings of hope and unity offer comforting escapism from a world that can feel devoid of those things. Admittedly, the general sentiment can sometimes border on saccharine, and perhaps even feel slightly unsettling near the end (the monotonous chanting in "Our People" feels like the musical equivalent of being indoctrinated into a cult). However, it's never quite enough to take away from the generally mesmerizing experience.
The sheer ambition of the project is impressive — even more so how this ambition has been successfully fulfilled by Thackray's impeccable work as an arranger and producer. The way she navigates the plethora of vocal tracks in particular, making them feel as pristine as possible, is a startling achievement. In addition, Thackray's multi-instrumental wizardry and Dougal Taylor's often frenetic percussion shine throughout, doing much to establish compelling tension within the music. Despite the abundance of compositional ideas, they are all executed with attention to clarity, cohesion and detail. Thackray's auteurist approach in the studio combined with her peerless precision and control feel like a whole new genre unto itself. (Movementt)