Critically acclaimed musician Kevin So has something special going on. He stands apart from the numberless hordes of singer-songwriters with his highly personal and artistically vibrant hybrid music of r&b, rock, jazz, blues, soul, folk, and hip-hop. “My music’s what I am,” the Brooklyn resident says with typical generosity of spirit. “It’s who I am. It’s a fusion of many things. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself in any style. If anything, I like to call it pop music, which covers a broad spectrum of music.”
New album A Brighter Day, his first studio release since Leaving The Lights On appeared in 2003 to rave reviews, comes out this February packed with stellar S0-style pop music that reveals an important young musician capable of communicating the emotion behind his songs through flawless vocal technique and guitar playing of grace and imagination. Recorded live in the studio without any tape gimmicks, A Brighter Day is this Asian-American troubadour’s most mature and accomplished artistic statement yet.
A Brighter Day, on the indie WingBone label, captures all the energy and cool of So living in New York City in 2006-07. “The album is the realization that music is the power,” says So. “Music is what you have. ‘Music is its own reward’ jazz drummer Bob Moses used to tell me. Just be grateful. The answer to all my problems and concerns is when I present gratitude instead of attitude. It changes the whole light on a situation.”
Thirteen-minute long “Love Suite #239,” layered with intriguing musical changes, is A Brighter Day’s centerpiece. Composed by Kevin with the integrity and deep-seated emotion he brings to all his work, the “Suite” evokes classic pop music without being imitative. Think Billy Joel’s “Themes from an Italian Restaurant” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Think the second half of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Think trumpeter Miles Davis stretching out in concert and Keith Jarrett’s piano voyages. So says about the masterly song: “I’d been thinking about all aspects of love: falling in love, infatuation, lust, commitment. Love’s the one thing we all have in common. Love songs will always be around, and I felt this is my contribution to the library of love songs.”
“Love Suite #239” and 10 more spellbinding tracks, including they-should-be-hits “New York City” and “The System,” are unfailing in their felicity of expression. The beautifully crafted music pulses with life and plumbs a number of moods and textures. In places, it appears So has drawn inspiration from Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen, two of his favorite musicians. Ten years from now, A Brighter Day may very well be considered a classic of timeless pop music along the lines of Wonder’s Innervisions and Springsteen’s Born to Run albums.
The print and cyberspace media (to name just three, the Austin Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and NewspaperTaxi.net) have joined radio programmers all around the country in taking notice of Kevin So’s marvelous music, starting with his appearance on the Boston folk scene in the mid-1990s and continuing up to the present as a road warrior with a strong national fan base. Among the most prestigious concert stops that So has made in his career are the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago, the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan, the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
Many leading musicians are included enthusiastic supporters of So’s music, including Billy Bragg, Keb’ Mo’ (whose recent album, Peace… Back By Popular Demand, has the So & Mo’ collaboration, “Talk”), Mary Lou Lord, Joe Cocker, Martin Sexton, Richie Havens, and Amos Lee. So’s recordings, not least the live set The So Must Go On (2005), the double-disc Leaving The Lights On (2003), which he calls his “thank-you to the Asian-American community,” and Individual (1997), have been brisk international sellers. A musical play based on his life is in the works in NYC; a 45-minute version of the production opened to a warm response at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Kevin So is going for his dream, all the while “keeping it real.” Lyrics from his stirring composition “New York City” on the new album stand as his personal credo: If I succeed or if I fail/Well, at least I’ll live to tell the tale/ ‘Bout a man whose soul was lifted to new heights.