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Susan Clynes’ ‘Life Is’: dazzling example of live as is

Susan Clynes “Life Is...” album [February 18, 2013 MoonJune Records]

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Trained in classical music and jazz, Belgian artist Susan Clynes has had to stand at the crossroads a lot. At various points of her life, she’s had to decide whether to go with convention or go with the flow of her heart’s desire.

Belgian singer and pianist Susan Clynes’ second album, “Life Is…,” is about leaping into the unknown and making the most of the moments.
Yann Verstraete

In 2004, Clynes finished up high school, and was enjoying a jazz summer camp when she nearly walked away from music as a career. In her mind, if she went to the university for music, she would have to go the route of a concert pianist or a classical composer; neither of which appealed to her. “As far as I knew there wasn’t a school for the kind of music I wanted to do, so, I was probably on the verge of signing up to do something like Philosophy or Psychology, not music,” Clynes expressed in the liner notes. “When one of the teachers at the camp heard I was thinking of going in a different direction, he told me, ‘You have to study music; if you do it part-time, you’re not going to grow to your full potential.’”

A year later, she came out with her first major CD, Sugar For A Dream, and faced another crossroads. She could allow herself to get swallowed up in the commercial industry as another singer/songwriter, or she could fight the tide to find her own individuality. This second album, Life Is… on Moonjune Records, is Clynes’ resounding answer.

Released on February 18, 2013, Life Is... traces Clynes’ tracks from three live concerts with three entirely different formats. Two of the performances took place in Brussels’ Archiduc, an historic art deco bar, with a trio (drummer Nico Chkifi, bassist Pierre Mottet) and a duo (cellist Simon Lenski), and the second at the Library of the Cultural Center of Bree, Belgium, just her on piano.

The entire live album is her and her musicians in the moment. She wrote and produced all 11 songs on the record. “I want to make music that bridges the different worlds of songwriting and instrumentals of compositions and improvisation. I want to talk to the heart but not forget there’s also the mind,” she wrote in her liner notes. Acknowledging that going live runs the risk of picking up every fault, Clynes nevertheless preferred to do it that way. “You can spend years making sure everything is just right, over-thinking everything. Obviously every artist can be a little hyper-critical of what they’ve done and it’s the same with this album. I notice that there are little things here and there that could be improved. But this is a statement about one moment in time where an artist does as good as he or she can in front of an audience,” she told writer Sid Smith in the liner notes.

Living in the moment is her deal. So far, it’s paid off. Married to keyboardist Antoine Guenet, another MoonJune recording artist (The Wrong Object, SH.TG.N), Clynes made quite a stir when she sang with him on his “Glass Cubes” song as a guest artist from his 2013 album, After The Exhibition. At Guenet’s suggestion, MoonJune quickly snagged Clynes for an album of her own.

“There are points in your life when you have to go with the moment,” she continued. “You don’t always know what the consequences will be of such a choice, or if the path you go down is ultimately the right one. Yet in your heart of hearts you sense it’s the right thing to do. You go with the moment and take that leap into the unknown.”

Clynes’ voice is certainly far from perfect, but pours out in halting, but sincere jazz-speak. Her pianissimo is, however — an electric, yet flowery predilection toward the classical in a tumbling, fumbling somersault of jerky emotional jabs.

Instead of camouflaging an imperfect voice that sometimes cracks and strains, struggles and falters, Clynes openly embraces whatever comes out of her mouth as the lyrical equivalent of lava and tundra. Curiously, the manner of her vocalism flutters and floats above a rather dark strain underlying a portentous-sounding piano in minor keys.

The title track is a good indication of this clash. Her voice is quite lively and light, as that of a child learning to sing. But the words, of hate, frustration, fear, and the choice to make the most of hope, spill out in the darkness of her piano, pounded forth as if Beethoven took possession, refuge, and rampaged.

Another tendency is Clynes’ use of repetition in her lyrics. There are very little words to describe her feeling and her thought process. She repeats the chorus, changing the tone in her vocals and the tempo in her piano for the lyrical moment, as in “Butterflies”: “Butterflies all around, making life, making sound.” The listener can’t help but fall into her hypnotic spell, and feel what she’s trying to convey, rather than understand why she’s trying to convey it. Similarly to a haiku.

“Childhood Dreams” is, perhaps, her best track. She successfully merges her hypnotic, but spare lyrical repetition with her gift for gliding over the keys in a classical style, with Lenski’s cello sparking jazz avant-garde squeaks and wails — on a gun-metal race to the finish. As darkly lit as her music tends to be in the conflict between will and what will be, her lyrics and her heightened voice, with all the cracks and stumbles, attempt to reach higher, better, brighter.

Okay, maybe “Les Larmes,” too. Quite an appropriate song for the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. Clynes simply loses herself in the dramatic entanglements with cellist Lenski, as the two musically fall together and fall apart. Clynes distills all of the anguish of the conflict in a wordless vocal surrender, echoed by Lenski’s sad, mournful, spiraling lament.

Jazz was never about perfection, but the truth in the grit of improvisation, collaboration, and the art of the mind fused with the heart, so that the audience glimpses a real person. In this, Susan Clynes shines. Fly, girl, fly.