Maria – Jane Siberry (1995)

Maria album cover
Maria album cover

When I was younger and learning about jazz, it did not take long before I grew bored with much of it. I hated the fusion jazz of the ’70s, but kept coming back to jazz vocalists. Eventually I got bored with them too because it seemed they were all coming from the same place of historical introspection.

Then I heard Abby Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson and others. I soon realized that jazz like any other music could incorporate influences outside of its traditional core influences. But I always wondered what would jazz with indie rock sensibilities sound like. After Cassandra Wilson was mixing jazz with classic rock on Blue Light Till Dawn in 1993, it would take a Canadian to give us an answer two years later to the indie rock-jazz question.

Jane Siberry’s career began to take off when she gained notoriety with a string of progressive pop hits in the first half of the ‘8os. Her label Reprise thought it had her pegged for future mainstream success. So on her 4th album she did what any true artist would do, she changed direction. The album that resulted, Maria was nothing like funk-pop-gospel of When I Was a Boy, Siberry’s last album.

Maria was an interesting blend of pop and jazz with none of the limitations that come with pop structured for the charts. In fact, Maria would be Siberry backed by a jazz quintet of notable session players. Recorded in just three days with nary a synth in sight, it would mimic the recording processes made famous by Van Morrison and Miles Davis.

After the musicians were recorded, Siberry would edit the recordings and add her vocals. Sung from the point of view of an innocence child and an observer with different perspectives in time, the album features poetic chants between songs and surprisingly well-integrated fairy tale references. One of those tracks, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ ended up as a beautiful, but short play on the rift of the childhood classic.

While the innocence of kid songs into the mix might sound corny, Siberry was able to add a bit of foreboding while managing to keep the playfulness intact. If these songs were about confronting demons and loosing innocence, the beautiful prophetic countdown in albums 20 minute finale ‘Oh My My’ suggests that children (or Siberry as a child) would have a bummer of a life to look forward to. The juxtaposition of Puff the Magic Dragon makes it all the more beautiful if not disturbing. Kate bush would use a similar song structure for her ’50 Words for Snow’ in 2011.

Maria was one of those jazz albums that only a handful of artist seem to make anymore. Cassandra Wilson comes to mind. While Wilson may have infused some rock and pop elements into jazz, Siberry expands it with the inclusion of alt-rock tendencies, further expanding the jazz vocabulary. Maria was almost like hearing Kate Bush in a experimental jazz setting. It had been done before with Joni Mitchel’s Mingus, but Maria was a much bolder and more personal experiment.

Of Siberry’s vast catalog, this was her last big label recording. Her insistence on artistic control with less than commercial results resulted in her leaving Reprise. Eventually she would leave Toronto for New York and start her own record label where she still releases interesting music.

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