Linda Tate travels often, widely and well. But that’s not the only reason for this album’s title.
“I wanted to recognize the influence of travel on my world vision,” says the Chicago singer-songwriter, “So I thought I should write about specific places.” This she has done, as on “Tango in Shanghai,” inspired by actual events, and “Ordinary Day” (set in Fukushima, Japan). “But then I thought that wherever you go, you find things common to all cultures. And I realized that ‘geography’ is a much broader concept than landscapes, rivers, and mountains. It can apply to almost anything – ordinary objects; the human body; languages; the emotional terrain of relationships – they all have their own unique geography.”
Tate has not restricted her travels to the external environment; she has also mapped the byways of her own thoughts and emotions, and in the process has discovered as much as she had by traipsing the world. And yet, she says, “With so many songs, so many ways of people saying ‘I love you’ or talking about the stars, I’m always wondering what I can say that’s actually my own take, and also a little different.” Not to worry – there’s plenty of that here.
On the delightful album-opener, she strings together greetings and endearments from more than a dozen languages from French to Japanese and including Farsi, Navajo, Setswana, and Zulu. The mesmerizing title track limns an inner panorama of discovery and potential. And on “Spicy,” she transforms the international kitchen into love poetry. “Every culture has its particular cuisine,” Tate explains, “and spices are important.” (And how often do you hear “Basmati rice” in a song’s lyrics?)
Tate came to jazz from folk music, and her voice retains the clear, artless sincerity associated with that genre. From folk music, she says, “I learned to appreciate the beauty of a singable melody, and the importance of telling a story with a lyric.” Soon she found herself drawn to the extended harmonies of classical music and jazz, and she turned to other songwriters who bring together elements of folk and jazz as inspiration for her own composing: Joni Mitchell, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Fagan and Becker of the band Steely Dan (along with the pathfinders of earlier generations, like Ellington and the Gershwins).
The success of any journey depends partly on finding the right traveling companions, and Tate has invited some of Chicago’s best. They include seasoned and versatile veterans: pianist Bobby Schiff, the indefatigable drummer Ernie Adams, and two world-traveled bassists in Marlene Rosenberg and Larry Gray (also heard on cello). But the retinue also features artists on the ascent: drummer Charles Heath IV and vibist Preyas Roy. And Tate could not have chosen two more experienced tour guides than the peerless flutist and reedman Steve Eisen (also heard on congas) and guitar guru Curtis Robinson (who also sings on “Bumble Bee”).
Geography, her fourth album, is the first to exclusively feature Tate’s own compositions, which offer an eclectic but unified vision. And Geography marks Tate’s continued growth as a singer: with each album she emerges as an even more compelling and self-assured performer, by turns kittenish, sharp, sexy, and soulful, and fully equipped to convey all the moods and meanings in her songs.
Well, you know – Travel. It broadens the mind. As Tate proves here, it does a pretty good job on the heart as well.
NEIL TESSER - Music Journalist