San Gabriel 7
Red Dress – Featuring Vocalist Songwriter Femi Knight
This is yet another new discovery not only for this writer but likely for most folks outside of California. Even though San Gabriel 7 was formed 14 years ago and have issued nine albums prior to this, Red Dress, they have carried on mostly as a regional treasure. The story and journey of the band is quite interesting and applicable to this release but first let’s mention the powerhouse vocalist, songwriter Femi Knight who is clearly the star of this show. She is also a keyboardist and voiceover actor, AKA Dawn Bishop, who has collaborated with an extensive list of well-known musical artists, actors, choreographers, and record producers. Some of these names include Sergio Mendes, John Legend, Ledisi, Patti Austin, and Ray Brown Jr., to name just a handful. The album features seven of her compositions and two live performances of Knight and the band at the Cal Tech Jazz Festival.
They say that music is not rocket science but the band members here would disagree. Leader Jim Lewis, a trombonist who is also a spacecraft engineer at JPL, the R & D center managed by NASA by Caltech is in, you guessed it, the San Gabriel Valley. Music is a popular pursuit for many scientists. Here are just a couple of examples: Brian May, the guitarist for Queen has a PhD in Astrophysics and Greg Graffin, the frontman for the punk-rock band Bad Religion, has a PhD. In Zoology. Lewis formed the band with fellow scientists from JPL and Caltech in 2006. While he still leads the group, all other original members have moved on, and band is made up of professional jazz musicians from Southern California. These folks all have extensive resumes, The rhythm section counts seven – Chad Edwards (keyboards and B3), Matt Wiesberg (keyboards), Chris Gordon (piano and producer) Steve Gregory (guitar), Jonathan Pintoff (bass), and Scott Breadman (percussion). Joining Lewis in the horn section are trumpeter/flugelhornist Jeff Jarvis, trumpeter Kye Palmer and saxophonist Glen Berger.
When Lewis was deployed to Afghanistan on successive tours, he asked prolific composer and arranger Dave Cushman to lead the band, which had changed considerably upon his return. Beyond the shifting personnel, Cushman has a funky edge to his writing and Lewis fell in love with new direction, and Cushman has been the sole arranger for the past seven years. For the past several years the band has followed two paths – instrumental music arranged by Cushman and the other path features vocalists. But rather than have the vocalist do the band’s normal material, the vocalist gets to choose the material, whether they are originals or part of their repertoire. Lewis does tend to favor singer-songwriters as Knight is here. Cushman does all the arrangements, regardless of path taken. This is the band’s second outing with a vocalist, the first being 2016’s Lost My Heart, which featured the Australian singer Ingrid James.
Ostensibly a jazz unit, in backing Knight the band is in blues, funk, soul, and R&B territory. The live cuts include Bettye LaVette’s “When a Woman’s Had Enough” and the B.B. King concert staple, Stix Hooper’s “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” two blues tunes done in blues-jazz mode. Her own compositions delve more into the other genres mentioned and represent the modern woman stance in the 21st century. The first of these, “I’m Going Home,” is about a woman trying to navigate a relationship. “Give a Little” is a plea for balance between partners. Glen Berger’s poignant also sax solo colors the title track, “West Indian Brown” with “red dress” in the chorus and Edwards’ B3 providing a gospel feel.
Given her long-standing affiliation with Mendes, it’s only natural that a Brazilian song enter the mix, with “New Tomorrow” depicting a woman contemplating a spiritual reality. Key Palmer’s trumpet supplies the uplift. Steve Gregory’s guitar leads into the R&B epic “The Next Best Thing” which is reprised with a radio edit for the last track. While the music is upbeat, the lyrics reflect plenty of despair. “Stranger” has a woman doing some soul searching.
Red Dress swings and bristles with energy as a jubilant coming out party for both the band and Femi Knight, who treads the line between powerhouse, get up and dance vocals and sensitive lyrics. Those festival cuts especially have us longing for the return of live music. Femi Knight is just so commanding!
- Jim Hynes