Widely hailed as one of the best jazz debut albums of 2015, Tiffany Austin’s self-released Nothing But Soul made quite a splash, including sterling reviews in Downbeat and on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Her eagerly awaited follow-up, Unbroken, confirms the Bay Area vocalist’s status as one of jazz’s elite singers and a formidable songwriter as well.
Unbroken is both a timeless meditation on African-American culture’s extraordinary resilience and an all-too-timely response to the reenergized forces seeking to degrade and deny that legacy. Produced by Grammy Award-winning jazz champion Richard Seidel, the album features arrangements by trombonist Mitch Butler. He’s joined by a stellar cast of jazz veterans, including pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Rodney Whitaker, drummer Carl Allen, and tenor saxophonist Teodross Avery, along with young trumpeter Ashlin Parker.
Rather than separating African-American music into kindred tributaries, Austin plunges into the whole river of sound that’s sustained black life in America since before the nation’s founding. In many ways, she’s contesting what vocalist Gregory Porter has called “musical genocide” with a soul-steeped affirmation that embraces blues and swing, spirituals and R&B, bebop, post-bop, and her own Louisiana Creole heritage.
“I’ve experienced multiple instances of people trying to separate blues from jazz,” Austin says. “It’s kind of maddening. How can you divide the music that comes from the same diaspora, the same spirit? The idea behind this album is that the African-American spirit remains unbroken. After all of the things we go through we’re still here, joyfully creating great art and great music.”
The album makes a persuasive case for Austin’s skill as a songwriter with four originals and her lyrics for classic pieces by Ornette Coleman (“The Blessing”) and Charles Mingus (“Better Get It in Your Soul”). She opens with two pieces that speak to the vicious response that has sometimes met black accomplishment. “Blues Creole” evokes the pioneering Louisiana Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin, who was killed for interacting with a white woman at a dance. The searing “Greenwood” connects Watts and Ferguson to the 1921 pogrom that wiped out Tulsa, Oklahoma’s prosperous “Black Wall Street” neighborhood.
As if in direct response to these tales of oppression, Austin answers with a rollicking version of the old gospel song “Ain’t No Grave,” which builds to a glorious sanctified scat solo. She embraces the transformative power of love with a sumptuous “You Must Believe in Spring” and offers an object lesson in gratitude with her lyric for Ornette’s early free bop invocation. Butler’s arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s standard “Con Alma” adds some Caribbean sizzle to the luscious melody, and Austin turns up the heat on her original “King of Pleasure,” a wary celebration of the power of the flesh.
Soaring to the heavens on Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” Austin also summons the spirit with a wordless sojourn through Coltrane’s “Resolution” from A Love Supreme. She scats note for note Coltrane’s entire solo, a remarkable feat. The album closes with righteous marching orders by way of a riveting duet with Whitaker on the civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” The song provides the key to Austin’s overarching argument, that whether the source is Sunday morning worship, Saturday night revelry, or an afternoon protest, African-American music is animated by a liberatory imperative.
“Freedom songs aren’t only about freedom from an oppressor,” she says. “I use a more expansive idea. It’s about living your life soulfully. I always come back to soul. We must live with soulful connection to ourselves and our history.”
What makes Austin’s vision of freedom so powerful on Unbroken is its wholehearted embrace by her collaborators. In much the same way that the repertoire directly connects to generations of African-American culture, the Unbroken rhythm section musicians soaked up jazz wisdom in the bands of jazz giants, including Art Farmer, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Johnny Griffin, and Betty Carter. As co-leaders of a celebrated band, Carl Allen and Rodney Whitaker make a particularly potent tandem.
“Each one of them is so heavy in their own right,” Austin says. “When we first got into the studio, I loved the soul that everybody was bringing. On ‘Blues Creole,’ Cyrus comes out of the gate burning down the building. Carl on ‘Ain’t No Grave’ was bringing in these amazing percussive ideas, like putting a towel over the snare and playing with mallets. I said, ‘We’re doing a ring shout. Let’s keep it really African,’ and he brought it out. Listen to how Rodney brings it all the way back to church on ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.’ A real master can make you feel very deeply and knows you don’t have to play a bunch of notes.”
Born and raised in South Los Angeles, Austin grew up in a house filled with music. Her parents listened to soul and pop masters like Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder, while her Louisiana Creole grandmother introduced her to jazz. “She really taught me what soul was about,” Austin says. “She had a great sense of herself, and didn’t let anyone make her feel less than herself. When I sing the blues or jazz, I draw on that Grandmama place.”
Her older brother John Austin IV was also a profound influence. A celebrated emcee and rapper, he’s best known as Ras Kass. “He got signed to a record label at 17,” she recalls. “I watched him pursue his music, for better or worse, He never had a day job, and sustained himself from music. I’d sneak in his room and riffle through his records. He sampled lots of great music, and he’s responsible for my obsession with Ella scatting over the break in ‘A Night in Tunisia.’”
Austin took a very different path. She graduated from the vaunted Los Angeles High School of the Arts. At Cal State Northridge, she majored in creative writing, while studying classical voice. During the year she spent studying in the U.K., she started sitting in at jazz sessions around London. After graduating in 2004, Austin set out for Tokyo with the plan that she’d look for work as a singer and spend a year in Japan. After finding regular work as an R&B chanteuse Austin ended up staying in Tokyo through 2009 and only returned because UC Berkeley’s School of Law made her a scholarship offer she couldn’t refuse.
Austin submerged herself in law school and left music behind. After the first year, she realized that she desperately needed a musical outlet. She began performing with bassist, composer, and
bandleader Marcus Shelby on numerous projects, including a title role in Harriet’s Spirit, an opera about Harriet Tubman. “There was such a stark contrast between what I was doing in law school and what I wanted to do. I don’t regret going through the program—it made me understand what is truly important to me.”
With a series of prestigious gigs and residencies, Austin quickly gained attention as the most exciting new voice in the region. Performing a program of songs associated with Hoagy Carmichael led to her 2015 debut Nothing But Soul, the album that catapulted her into national prominence. With Unbroken, Austin makes it clear that she’s far more than a beautiful voice. Claiming her cultural birthright, she’s an artist drawing nourishment from all of jazz’s roots.
Tiffany Austin's debut album "Nothing But Soul"
Album Release Date: June 2015