By Jeff Cebulski
Kitt Lyles’ Real Talk Collective
Wake Before Dawn
Saluda Records, 2019
Kitt Lyles – Bass and vocals
Emily Kuhn – Trumpet (2, 3, 5–7)
Justin Copeland – Trumpet (2, 4)
Roy McGrath – Tenor sax
Chris Shuttleworth – Trombone
Erik Skov – Guitars
Joaquin Garcia – Piano and Fender Rhodes
Evan Swanson – Piano
Gustavo Cortiñas – Drums
Yuri Hevia – Bombo leguero
The latest album from bassist Kitt Lyles and his Real Talk Collective sounds like the second part of a yet-to-be-realized trilogy, as Lyles continues to carve a niche in the Chicago jazz scene that communicates the South Carolina native’s musical development from a Northwestern undergrad to a mature, cosmopolitan bandleader.
While his first album, Real Talk, featured Lyles’ ability to compose music that reflected his cultural past and the influence of artists like Charles Mingus, Wake Before Dawn bathes the listener with Southern charm while paying tribute to the multiple ethnic associations he has formed within the city. It also expands his compositional horizons, including two elongated pieces that suggest more ambitious aspirational excursions are ahead.
The longer pieces incorporate a string quartet, guest vocalists, and a pastiche-like approach, such as on the sprawling, bucolic “Birdsong,” the longest tune at over twenty minutes (including the introduction), which incorporates all of Lyles’ motifs and production frills. Kudos to tenor sax veteran Roy McGrath for his expressive solo that provides a sweet filling to the layers of music.
Lyles’ penchant for writing pleasingly harmonic, Orleans-tinged horn arrangements carries “Sandlappers Mood,” which lopes in a carefree pace that dominates the album. A chamber-like chorus leads to nice solos from guitarist Erik Skov and Lyles. A more serious tone is carried in “Learning, Growing, Grounded in Truth.” A single-chord piano mantra introduces a rising crescendo of horn drama, as the musicians seem to symbolize the arrival of a protagonist into the sophisticated city with its own cacophony.
The album’s generally languid pace is slightly interrupted by “The Water and the Word,“ the Latin-tinged other mini-suite dominated by the duo Son Monaras—vocalist Mercedes Inez Martinez with the requinto jarocho of Irekani Ferreyra—that receives a delightful bridge from Lyles and guest Yuri Hevia on bombo leguero before Real Talk’s piano stalwart Joaquin Garcia has his moment. Then the horns return to reintroduce the theme and set up the outro sung by Lyles and Martinez.
“Think; Repeat” returns the album to a more deliberate pace, riding a pleasant opening from Skov’s guitar and Garcia’s Fender Rhodes and receiving thoughtful statements from Emily Kuhn on trumpet. This piece moves on with yet another wonderfully distributed horn arrangement, which seems a climactic moment, as the denouement closer “Old Soul” possesses a Hoagy Carmichael insouciance typified by Chris Shuttleworth’s lazy trombone, McGrath’s bluesy soloing, Kuhn’s coned trumpet, and Skov’s sleepy comping, leading to a Deep South horn conclusion.
Wake Before Dawn represents both a tribute to Lyles’ roots and a statement of progression for this transplanted South Carolinian who has become a part of the Northern world and its midwestern melting pot, Down Home Chicago. Given his apparent composition chops, it will be interesting to see where this rising artist goes from here.