“It’s all soul music, because it comes from the soul,” was one of vocalist Stephanie Rooker’s departing messages on the night of her release party. From the politically determinant beat boxer Chesney Snow, who was backed by a viola/violin/cello string trio, to Kalae ALLDay’s hip-hop/rock/soul outfit, and the Housing is A Human Right folks who gave a presentation about their collection of stories, Stephanie Rooker and the Search Engine’s album release was a damn-well dazzling celebration of human expression.
Rooker’s repertoire of songs, some channeling Mississippi blues, some channeling emotive rock vixens like Janis Joplin, some others channeling jazz songstresses like Nina Simone, and then the more nuanced of contemporary genre-bending artists like Meshell Ndegeocello, are all authentic expressions of who Rooker truly is. Rooker’s sojourn to Ghana, her formal jazz training, and her reverence for hip-hop are authentic to her experience as a singer/song-writer.
Backed by a funky band of killer musicians, The Search Engine gave the audience an entire track-by-track run through of The Only Way Out Is In. Rooker’s recorded album affixes the jazz tradition of heavy improvisation, with a funky party groove, and thickly emotive blues vocals with a hip-hop sensibility. Kalae and Chesney Snow came to help Rooker on stage for “Sellin Ya Soul” to add that extra dynamism to make up for the absence of DJ Logic and John Medeski who both recorded on the song for the album. What resulted was a flavorful punch of vocal layering. Rooker leading with her subterranean voice, and backup harmonization by Kalae, and Rooker’s sister Jen, Kalae’s rap verse, and Chesney’s vocal percussions.
As for The Search Engine, watching such a diverse ensemble play with such conviction is testament to the how transgressive, yet natural, music can be arranged now in the 21st century with the expansion of possibilities afforded to musicians. There is evidence of progress. Mamiko Watanabe commanded the keys on stage with the dexterity and seriousness of a classically trained musician. Ben Tyree’s sultry string of guitar melodies added a gentle layer to the otherwise heavy groove of the band, woven tightly into Kevin Farrell’s tremendous bass riffs, and Lawrence Quall’s drumming that was played with a fervor strong enough to carry that of all eight other members on stage. V Jeffrey Smith’s switch between sax and flute added the wonderment of the jazz and funk flavors that made The Search Engine’s songs come to life. Mark Williams’ flirtatious trombone blares added a playful back and forth with the vocalists, as well as creating the last level of depth that are responsible for helping to make the band’s songs sound so ripe. Guest cellist Will Martina also graced the stage to help Rooker deliver some contemplative ballads.
The Only Way Out Is In is a beautiful, profound and fun album. Rooker’s and The Search Engine helped articulate for a live audience many of the concepts and feelings that Rooker sought to convey in the recordings. Thematically the album is a celebration of self, and for the release, that’s exactly what Stephanie Rooker did.
Listen to the track “Sellin Ya Soul” here”
Stephanie Rooker & The Search Engine ft. John Medeski, DJ Logic, Kalae aAllDay – Sellin Ya Soul by Revive Music
Words by Boyuan Gao