Life’s intended path is often affected by timing and sudden opportunity. The fortunes of YolanDa Brown, for example, although always driven by her talent, intelligence and facility to get things done, have at crucial moments offered up some unexpected options.
As a child, she played the piano, violin, drums, oboe and more before settling on saxophone as the instrument closest to her own musical voice. Later, as an academic, she notched up two masters degrees, began a PhD and learned Spanish to fluency, only then veering decisively back to music when her gigs blossomed into a first sell out solo concert at the Mermaid Theatre in London.
Now, a successful debut recording – 2012’s widely appreciated April Showers May Flowers – two consecutive Best Jazz MOBO Awards, an Urban Music Award and a heap of ecstatically received live shows further on, YolanDa has just created an entirely new musical genre all of her own in readiness for her second album, Love Politics War, due for release on Black Grape Records come June 16.
She’s christened it, with characteristic humour, ‘Posh Reggae’. “This album is a mix of reggae, jazz and soul,” she explains. “We have jazz chops and chords, and the soul element is always there.
Combining the three together for me feels like the right place to sit: it’s my home. The first album was a bit broader because it had classical and funk in there too and that made it a bit wild to box it up neatly. Now this is my sound, it is all me…
Understand, Love Politics War is not just a soul track followed by a jazz track, followed by a reggae tune. Nearly always it’s about combining the three styles into one sumptuous whole, reflecting YolanDa’s take on music.
While YolanDa’s debut album and subsequent Reggae Love Songs tour concerned themselves with love in its many aspects, on Love Politics War the saxophonist and songwriter is combining her fresh musical direction with a new social awareness, reflected in both her selection of guest performers and lyrics. World events over the past five years since April Showers May Flowers, as well as the birth of her now three-year-old daughter, have caused YolanDa to cast a more mature eye on her surroundings.
“The album is exactly that: a reflection on the world today and where love fits in it. Last year I did my Reggae Love Songs tour and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happening around us. I used to look at war in the historical sense – World Wars 1 and 2. Now it’s all around us. The threat is there all the time – the war on terror, the countries where war is an everyday reality, the desperation of asylum seekers…
“In the past I have tried to stay away from political stances, but this time I wanted to talk about the confusion that seems to be around right now. People voted for Brexit, but what kind of Brexit are we going to get? And here we are in 2017 voting again. It seems to me that what Marvin Gaye asked back in 1971 - What’s Going On? - it still stands. That was the inspiration behind this album.”
Star contributions to Love Politics War include the aforesaid Dame Evelyn Glennie who joins Snarky Puppy’s outstanding keysman Bill Laurance on the funky instrumental Feel No Pain. US soulman Raheem DeVaughn – himself no stranger to a political lyric or too – sings on two tracks: the gentle plea for mutual understanding This Kind Of Love and the Marleyesque Prosper, a song he himself wrote the words to.
Neutral Ground, meanwhile, features jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold [noted, amongst other things, for his performances on the 2015 Miles Davis bio-pic Miles Ahead] and New Orleans-based/British-born keyboard player Jon Cleary. Its title references the area of the Crescent City that historically used to separate the up-river Anglophone Americans from the down-river Creole/French speaking inhabitants [in the area that became the famous French Quarter].
Reflects YolanDa: “I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and a taxi driver told me about Neutral Ground, where people could come and there’d be no confrontation, no violence, no hatred - and that it still existed today. I liked that idea and musically we come together on the track and rub alongside each other - with Jon and Keyon - musicians from different walks of life, all making music together.”
Born in Barking in the early 1980s, YolanDa Brown has been flying high and fast pretty much all her life. She was Head Girl at her comprehensive in East London; she romped through her GCSEs and A-levels before going on to those degree courses in Operations Management at the University of Kent [where she achieved a First Class]; she taught herself to play saxophone and when it began to pay off only then did she make music the central focus of her future career.
YolanDa has played on stages with Billy Ocean, Mica Paris, Diana Krall and The Temptations, hosted her own shows on Sky and the BBC and for British Airways’ in-flight entertainment [she even performed on-board a plane for BA when they launched their direct route from Heathrow to New Orleans].
She’s been awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of East London, has taken tea with the Queen and Prince Phillip, is currently writing a series of children’s books, loves to drive fast cars around race tracks in her spare time – if you can seriously imagine her having any - and can even rattle off a Rubik’s Cube in around five minutes [on a good day]. Oh, and earlier this year she was named as the Chair of Youth Music. A real renaissance woman, set to reach new heights