MUSIC REVIEW: Steven Taetz – too cool for your yule?

Ray A-J December 6, 2017

A look at Canadian Jazz-pop singer Steven Taetz’s newest work, just in time for Christmas.

It may not be Christmas yet, but when I sat down to listen to Canadian Jazz-pop singer Steven Taetz’s new Christmas E.P it certainly felt like it. Straight away an uptempo rendition of the old favourite Cool Yule pulled me into a bright jazz room, complete with lindy hoppers and bombastic dancers. You can almost see the cabaret singers creep onto the stage, as the grand opening of the track (complete with decorative trumpets and jingle bells) strikes your ears. Juxtaposing this strong, powerful push of instruments is the cool crisp voice of Steven Taetz. He’s got the pipes of a pop singer, not typically a Jazz voice but nonetheless a very light and soft feather on an otherwise sharp pile of sounds. His playfully smooth voice is a far cry from the original deep hum of Louis Armstrong, as he advises to “have a yule that’s cool”, breathing new air into the Jazz standard.

Bubbling in my ears, the boiling energy of the track overspills into an instrumental conducted by the saxophone and trumpet. Both are talking to each other, engaging in melodic conversation with the piano that follows. It’s like a whole Jazz gig was raving on in my ears. Forget cocoa at Christmas, bring me a martini.

Just as you get lost in the rhythmic jungle of Jazz Orchestra, a lower rumble of silky velvet slips into your ears – It’s to die for. The voice belongs to Taetz’s co-star, Joanna Majoko and fits marvelously alongside his soft tenor. Picture a fluffy vanilla cake, complete with light frosting that once you bite into, it reveals a subtle layer of red velvet cream filling and you have Cool Yule the moment Majoko sings. Her deeper wispy tone makes for the perfect addition to this song. Oddly enough, Majoko’s interpretation of Taetz’s own lyrics – yes he even added his own to an otherwise played out song, is the best part. Her command over the words and raspy voice resemble the raspberry filled truffle you may find in box of bland milk chocolate duds. The higher notes, she reaches with ease, supplying chills and hairs on end. Oh – and she scats. Yes, scats. I suppose you’d have to hear it for yourself, but that is probably the sweetest version of scat I’ve heard. And then, just as you think the song is done, Taetz joins back in reintroducing the previously predictable outro with a beautiful harmony alongside Majoko. As you may be able to tell, that track is by far my favourite. It’s the perfect pilot episode set up for the rest of the E.P.

After my excitement at the welcoming title track, I was pretty jazzed to hear what would be next. But what came knocking on the door of the E.P? Disappointment.

Given his excellent crafting of the second chorus’ lyrics in Cool Yule, I was anticipating the same level of brilliance in his own song Lovers in the snow. However, the heartbroken ballad fell short with predictable rhymes and piano melodies (“Hear my voice soft and low” following “Follow me as I go” is just one example of many cliché rhymes present). It’s quite ironic actually, as Taetz’s higher delicate voice sings “Hear my voice soft and low” beautifully but most definitely not low.

I’m sorry to say I was bored by the time the second verse came around – although I am a sucker for a piano. Perhaps that’s just my taste, but most Christmas ballads seem the same, and this one was no exception. The song falls into the inescapable cliche Jazz ballards all wear. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Jazz just not Jazz ballards and that’s where he’s lost me. Perhaps I’m bias but I can think of at least two songs similar to Lovers in the snow. The chordal accompaniment was uplifting at times, with the section just before the end of the song baring hope, but still it fell into the four chord cliché of popular music. Come to think of it, the whole piano part wasn’t too dissimilar from Lily Allen’s rendition of Somewhere only we know – especially that section in particular.

One thing the song did do well (and don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad song per say, just a recycled one) was to put an image in my head as I listened. Hearing the alternating piano notes painted a picturesque scene of snow falling. Melancholic nostalgia carried in his voice drew the sketch of someone looking out of the window at the snowy road outside, as two people are ice-dancing. It would have been a pretty undertone to a sad scene in a Christmas film.

So not to rain on the parade of Cool Yule, but the second song in the quadrilogy fell just a little flat (unlike Taetz’s voice which was as ever well controlled and pretty). And maybe that’s just down to my dislike of ballads, but I wasn’t to thrilled with this track in particular.

Throughout the E.P, it was clear that the songs were all well produced and pleasingly professional; I can appreciate the technical prowess of each song but they don’t extraordinarily pull at my emotional heart-strings.

I did like Come Christmas however – another original song by Taetz. Melodies are reminiscent of very old Jazz, with chirpy Hawaiian sounding guitars and upbeat rhythms. Weirdly the song sounds warmer than Christmas, with its blazing fireplace of rich chordal backdrop and faux furr rug of melody from the trumpet and trombone, lining the warm floor of the track. It’s in this cosy log cabin winter scene that Taetz’s voice really does shine through.

Within the very first few seconds of the song, perspective is flipped to those of us that have endured the same arduous cracking of a relationship at Christmas: “Remember that December. A year since we have kissed” – wow, thanks for pulling that unwanted flashback Steven.

Slowly the sparkling snow drops of melodies carried by his pristine vocal, float into the verse. This time around, the lyrics are rather well crafted, like a vase of glass every word seems to have great time spent on their manipulation until they’re glossy and strong. Without deliberation the best line of the crystal lyrics: “When the halls are decked, the tree is trimmed, and after me you’ve pined, Come Christmas, you’ll see how much you miss me” just hammers home the kick in the teeth to a previous paramour left behind. The whole song is a relieved exclamation of “I don’t need you – providing a bitter twist to the tale of Lovers in the snow. I suppose it’s the Jazz-pop equivalent of any bitter-sweet, soul building, lovesick crushing power ballad – Kelly Clarkson springs to mind.

As the verse tag-teams the chorus to join in, I’m inescapably pulled into the Elvis film Blue Hawaii, with the marrying of chirpy Ukulele imitating guitar and emotionally fuelled vocals. A flamenco – esque Spanish quality becomes a well fitted costume for the six stringed instrument, as melody blends seamlessly with staccato chords. The chorus itself transforms the backdrop of Blue Hawaii drastically to that of a dimly lit speak easy, complete with smoky air and small Jazz band playing from a tight corner of the room.

I suppose you could say this E.P has become its own film, in the way it grasps at your nostalgia of Christmas and quickly leads you into a new scene every time a song changes. And that power and mysterious ability to be able to push an image into your mind, with sound alone, is incredible. So for all the faults of Lovers in the snow, by now the album has redeemed itself.

“What are you doing new year’s eve?” asks Taetz to his off camera subject as the last song’s chorus glides through the speak easy from before. Learning to play piano like Ewen Farncombe, that’s what. The sustain on each chord is absolutely gorgeous. It’s as though the notes in each chord refuse to leave and are pulling at every last second they can keep their camp in your ears. There’s a little trill just after the first “maybe I’m crazy” and it’s a jewel. Seriously, listen to that little gem, it’s so pretty.

With each listen I vainly attempted to pinpoint and dissect the parts of excellence in the song, but couldn’t. It’s like trying to explain the beauty you find in a painting hung in a gallery – you can’t, you just can’t pick out a single section worthy of gratitude because it’s the impact of the whole piece that gets you. For the life of me I couldn’t focus too long on distinguishing verse from chorus, because the song itself with all its beautiful melodies and delicate vocals was like a sea of music running through my ears. It relaxes you.

I can say however, much like a vague description of your liking for the colours in a painting, Taetz’s voice held its poise throughout. If Michael Buble had a slightly younger tenor brother, it would be Steven Taetz. The second time he asks “what are doing” his words become velvet: soft and breaking. The strength and control he carries is at times mesmerising.

As the trumpet saunters onto the stage, with its sweet singing of sadness that mirrors Taetz’s, it propels a state of swaying and enjoyment of the track. The engagingly short solo walks you through the era of Jazz in a dark dim room full of bombastic performers.

By the time the song reaches its final farewell, I’m left feeling robbed of time that could have been added to the song. At an unusual four minutes and twenty-four seconds, the song is longer than most pop tracks’ humble three minutes, yet not long enough. I feel like I could have listened to another verse or two; I didn’t want the lull of melodies and solemn symphony to end.

In an attempt to dissect it: Instrumentally the track is flawless; his vocals are liquid crystal, and overall the song flips from a seat in a speak easy (with its relaxed carefree instrumental backdrop) to a scene of heartbreak and hope in a typical rom-com film. This song just makes me impossibly nostalgic for a time I never knew, which is a pretty powerful attribute for music.

Overall the E.P felt luke warm. I enjoyed the fast, jolly Cool Yule, but what followed was as if you’ve made a tea and left it to go slightly cold; it still tastes good but not as warm and nourishing as it could have been. Funnily enough, throughout Lovers in the snow I found myself singing along to the charming track, but out of anticipation of the next line. Essentially I was guessing the next predictable word or lyric – which I understand, in such a restrictive and overdone topic as Christmas, it’s hard not to do. However there were warmer patches with the likes of What are you doing New Year’s Eve and Cool Yule bringing about fits of nostalgia.

Credit to Taetz – he has produced pristine classy pieces, but to carry on the tea metaphor, it just wasn’t quite my cup. Personally I wouldn’t listen to the E.P religiously, (apart from Cool Yule which I will more than definitely play each Christmas, and maybe even What are you doing New Year’s Eve) but I do recommend it for anyone that adores good old-fashioned Jazz ballards.

I will however, certainly be listening to more of Joanna Majoko after this. And despite my indifference, I would definitely listen to some of Taetz’s other music because, after all, he is still a commendably good singer.