Little Shells: A New Take on Avant-Garde Jazz [Review]

Little Shells

A new popular format for recording projects lately is to create a collaboration of a number of different free agents to make a fluid “band” around a central theme or person. Little Shells is following in the footsteps of bands like The Polyphonic Spree, [debut] and Monks of Mellonwah in the way they are forming their recordings. The brainchild of Little Shells, singer/songwriter Conchita Campos, uses this collective recording approach to coax some truly avant-garde and indie sounds out of a mainly jazz base. Their first album is called 5 Deep Under and is available for stream and purchase on Little Shells’ Bandcamp page.

Brooklyn-based jazz artist Conchita Campos has already released two solo albums since 2004. With a jazz/bossa nova foundation, she found that she also enjoyed the more unconventional rhythms which came with fusion jazz, indie music and experimental artists like Frank Zappa. She has teamed up with a truly dizzying array of musicians and artists to complete the new project that is Little Shells’ 5 Deep Under. The diversity of sound on this album shows how the input of a variety of artists with different backgrounds can produce something completely different than its individual parts.

Campos may have put together the Little Shells project because, after just two albums, her own characteristic sound was already being defined. That sound is hardly boring, however. A sort of hybrid of emotive indie and Latin jazz, Campos’ sound on her first two albums have been compared to Tori Amos, Fiona Apple or Amy Winehouse. It seems for her third effort, however, Campos wanted to take herself out of her own box. With 5 Deep Under, she has certainly achieved that.

Campos herself plays multiple instruments on 5 Deep Under, including piano, “sticks” – whatever that is – and kazoo. The rest of the band is a rotating cast, but most of the “guest” musicians play on multiple tracks. Well-known producer Jon Jetter seems to be the second biggest contributor to the project, as he produced most of the album as well as provided recording space. He also provides guitar, glockenspiel and programming work on a number of tracks. Justin Williams, an electric and upright bass player whose star is rising on both the jazz and indie scenes, also performs on a large number of tracks on Little Shells’ first album. Other notable artists who contribute to Little Shells are violinist Michael Hunter, trumpet player and composer Jordan McLean and drummer Mike Thies, who is featured on all the album’s tracks except one.

Despite sometimes sounding like organized chaos, most of the tracks on Little Shells’ debut follow a similar format. An intro of Zappa-or-Miles Davis-like fusion jazz is followed by a more mellow-sounding musical body, and every track contains Campos’ emotionally-charged indie-jazz voice and ultra-personal lyrics. The first single released off the album is I’ll Remain, and it surprisingly is the one track which does not follow this format. The most simplistic track on the album, it consists mostly of bare-bones Campos on her piano with some jazz backing on the chorus. It is a beautifully done jazz-pop ballad, but if Campos is going for avant-garde, this is an odd choice to lead Little Shells’ debut.

The lead track on 5 Deep Under, entitled Another Night, seems to be more the unconventional style Campos and crew are trying to create. The opening starts with an alarm bell, some unidentifiable percussions and a cacophony of discordant orchestral carnival music. Campos’ vocals come at interludes at first, and she is able to adapt her very well-trained voice to this new element of dissonant backing music. At times she sings with the odd carnival mixing, and the two compliment each other; the backing music adds an edge to the vocals, and Campos’ pretty, bell-like voice softens the discordant tones of the horns and the off-beat drums.

Fans can expect more songs on 5 Deep Under to be avant-garde like Another Night than conventional like I’ll Remain, but Little Shells’ debut offering strikes an interesting balance. There is plenty of beautifully performed jazz for the purists, but there is also a healthy dose of experimental, fusion and indie elements to draw the more unconventional music crowds. The hybrid Campos and company have created with Little Shells seems to be the epitome of the collective recording project concept. By bringing together a number of seemingly different styles and inputs, they have created a work in 5 Deep Under which is most assuredly greater than the sum of its parts.

Review by Layla Klamt

Sources: Little Shells – “5 Deep Under” Little Shells – “I’ll Remain”

Image provided courtesy of Little Shells’ media kit.

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