July 10, 2013

LILJoshua Lerner is dressed in azure.

You might first have heard Chicago’s Lili K.her rhyming “D. Rose” with “free throws” on Chance’s “Hey Ma” from 10Day. More than just the nostalgic hoop references, she actually makes that song, adding a layer of smoky vocal lines throughout the verses and well-textured harmonies on the hook. It’s a nice aside that her mama gets thanked at the end of the track. She’s also featured, less prominently, on Acid’s Rap “Good Ass Intro” and “Pusha Man,” as well as Tree’s “Say How U Feel” from Sunday School II.

So it seems Lili K. has been flying just below the radar as a Chicago feature artist for a year or two now. Last week, she released her My Favorite Things EP for free on her website. It’s a short-and-sweet paean to jazz vocal standards, with K.’s voice stretching out over a bed of lush neo-soul and instrumental hip-hop. Peter Cottontale and Nico Segal have their hand in production and instrumentation throughout the four tracks.

I’m a pretty big jazz head. I go for that old vocal jazz, too. So the original versions of these songs are not lost on me. The synthesized instrumental at the start of “Interlude” kicks off K.’s splashy, futuristic version of Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia,” which also worked under the “Interlude” title when sung by the incomparable Sarah Vaughn. Duke Ellington originally provided “Come Sunday.” “Solar System” is a cabaret-turned-electronic rework of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and “Fly Me To The Moon.” And the EP’s final track combines two jazz standards that already have their place in the pop lexicon: Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Richard Rodgers’ “My Funny Valentine.”

The thing many singers (and instrumentalists, for that matter) too often neglect while doing vocal standards like these is that each one carries its own connotation and tone. On the original “Interlude,” Sarah Vaughn, backed by Diz and his orchestra, sang “I lived in a dream for a moment.” And it was meant to sound just like that. A swirling, violin-soaked dream. You’ve got to give K. some credit here, because her version sounds like a dream too. It’s just more of a psychedelic, neo-soul dream, with behind-the-beat snare hits and creeping keyboards that bob and weave around the vocals.

Things get a little more complicated on “Summertime Valentine” as the album comes to a close. Trumpet, keys, and drums meet in a deep, swiveling pocket, complete with repeated snare hits on the one. (Am I right to thank ?uestlove for teaching a whole generation of drummers about the occasional downbeat snare hit?). And, to be sure, K. sings the hell out of this track, adlibbing lines and repeating choice multi-layered harmonies.

My only concern is whether these are the right tracks to be turning up to eleven. To these ears, “Summertime” will always be a wistful lullaby, or, at the least, a mournful blues. There’s no mistaking it’s a sad song. And when K. quotes “My Funny Valentine,” in the middle of the track, it’s not clear how the lyric is supposed to be interpreted by the listener. “Valentine” can be heard as a sardonic insult or a heartfelt invocation of love-despite-flaw. It leaves one wondering what these two tracks are doing mashed together in the first place.

Despite my confusion, I’m kind of glad K. went for “Valentine.” The most memorable moment of My Favorite Things is when the band breaks down and K. riffs on that song’s most revealing lyric: “But don’t change one little, itty, bitty hair for me, no no no.” The poise, timing, and delivery of this one line is astonishing. It sends you back to that vintage Jill Scott sound circa 2000. To these ears, neo-soul and hip-hop should be next on the list of K.’s favorite things.

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