WHENEVER JAZZ ARTISTS attempt to meld their sound with other genres, or vice versa, the results tend to be a mixed bag. The music often pitches too hard in one direction, with one style taking precedence over the other. Lately, though, a few musicians have found that sweet spot where both elements are served in equal proportions. Trumpeter Dave Douglas has found a fantastic collaborator of late with LA beatsmith Shigeto, and David Bowie’s final album was a pure partnership with the Donny McCaslin Quartet.
Jumping on that shortlist is local artist Coco Columbia. This young singer/songwriter has been cutting quite a figure in the local scene with her long colorful wigs and flashy outfits, but it’s her music that’s left the longest-lasting impression. Her 2014 debut, The Weight, was a dazzling if occasionally unbalanced clash of flickering jazz guitar, drum ’n’ bass-like rhythms, and flashes of pure soul and hip-hop. On her newest release, When the Birds Begin to Walk, Columbia’s bold, multi-layered vision has come into complete focus.
The 10 tracks on this album feel delirious and serrated. The drums (played mostly by Micah Hummel) stutter and spurt, turning on a dime into a splashy groove or stopping a song dead in its tracks. It leaves the rest of the musicians—an ensemble that includes Columbia’s regular guitarist Grant Sayler and bassist Alex Meltzer—scrambling around to keep pace and add their own textures and tones to the mix. Nothing ever feels terribly secure but somehow it holds together.
Key to that is the presence of Columbia’s voice. Her crystalline singing is the music’s ballast, which is quite a feat considering how much it shapeshifts even within the course of a single song. On “9 Steps,” Columbia goes from belting to the cheap seats, to cooing to the folks in the front row, to crying to the heavens. She bobs and weaves her way through a smartly deconstructed cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” not daring to keep pace with the original but instead maintaining her own wild-eyed trajectory.