Kristen Lee Sergeant
By Kabir Sehgal
An artist channels an inner spirit with burning authenticity, and thenceforth shares it with the audience and the world to consider, ponder, and enjoy. This communion between artist and audience has been challenged in the wake of the pandemic, in which audiences disappeared, and artists hibernated to keep safe.
And that’s the context, the circumstances in which this exquisite album was created in the winter of 2021. Falling is a musical treasure to cherish and to hold dear as it’s a masterpiece on every level. Kristen Lee Sergeant is a powerful, creative force who has given us a sculpted production deserving of across-the-board plaudits.
Of course, falling means to move from a higher to lower plane, to descend and cascade, to even plunge and plummet. There is no escaping the tragic times in which this project was manifested. But falling can also be an act of faith: When you surrender, you create space for growth, advancement, and enlargement. Sergeant embraced this paradox as she arranged and performed on every piece, and wrote music and lyrics for eight of the album’s ten songs.
This is an inspired work. And Sergeant is an inspiring artist. That’s partly because she has an interdisciplinary approach to music making. For starters, her musical heroes range from Dianne Reeves, Shirley Horn, Judy Garland, to Donald Fagen, Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple. She also has strong appreciation for drama, particularly the fusion of jazz/theater/opera/pop from the 1970s. Ultimately, her music tells vivid stories. You’ll surely find her lyrics enveloping and engrossing. “Once we got in the studio, I felt like a playwright or director, when it came to working with the musicians,” Sergeant said. “Each song has a very precise environment and central idea, and my job was to make sure each instrument enters and orbits the same world. It’s not enough for me just to inhabit it. We all have to be there,” she said. And wow, did she bring an incredible crew on the journey. Her band includes Jeb Patton (piano), Jay Sawyer (drums), Hannah Marks (bass), Jody Redhage Ferber (cello), Ted Nash (soprano sax).
“Let’s Fall” is an apt opening salvo. It’s an invitation to let go, to step outside yourself and experience things from a new angle. It’s about taking a step back from the bustle of life and embracing the pleasures of the night instead. The gambling and desert analogies seem to evoke a night in Las Vegas, when you learn how to dance in the moonlight (and revel in a mistake well made) to an epic soundtrack that features Patton (piano) and Ferber (cello). “Sisyphus” grooves with forward-pushing and cathartic energy. Sergeant’s vocals swirl lushly into place, before she sings of “pushing that rock up that hill.” It’s inevitable that the same rock will come tumbling down, but this piece at least is a sonic lilt, musical companionship for tough and challenging times. The obstacle isn’t in the way. The obstacle is the way. And once you embrace this view, you come to relish the perpetual resistance. And besides, how can you feel down after Patton’s dazzling piano solo and Sergeant’s graceful singing?
Sergeant composed “Infinity Blues” after meeting an astronaut, and this piece begins its flight with Nash’s searching, exploring soprano saxophone solo. This song captures the essence of trying to find understanding in the infinite. We are on a tiny rock in a distant galaxy, and we’re on an endless search. In this case, we’ve found an incredible number that proves “swing doesn’t have to be retro,” as Sergeant says. “Chiaroscuro” is an allusion to a world unseen and a technique in Renaissance paintings with heavy contrast between light and dark figures. This selection has a well-crafted counterpoint that unfolds elegantly throughout. “Let the candles die, lose ourselves in the darkness, never bother with why,” sings Sergeant, who all but welcomes curious minds and listeners to lose themselves, in an effort to find what truly matters.
“Honey” is a feel-good, get-up blues in which we hear Sergeant’s genius as a lyricist. In just a few lines, she invokes rich imagery, colorful snippets, conveys a transformative message with a few thorns along the way. Meanwhile, Marks (bass) lays it down with her round, enveloping tone. “Birdsong” is a song of warning, in which Sergeant heeds against settling for illusory comfort when freedom can be attained. We should be able to choose our own fates. Nash conveys the ornithological fluttering, the struggle to take flight. “Better Off” is a personal number, in which Sergeant suggests falling away and out of love. Her deft arrangement and remarkable performance will linger with you, as she’s able to almost magically make you reflect upon episodes in your life. Alas, “The prize isn’t worth the game,” she sings.
“Orpheus” is bold and dramatic, deserving of a theatrical rendering. “If anyone can play someone out of Hades, it’s Ted Nash,” says Sergeant. He surely grooves through 3/4 time into an even feeling, head-nodding groove. Sergeant’s Greek chorus-layered vocals set the stage, and her “Orpheus” resonates with the confidence which one feels before the fall. “Autumn Nocturne” is a quieter, more reflective piece that’s on point with its embrace of the fall season. The weather must cool, the leaves must fall, in order for renewal to begin, and for balance to be restored. And this piece indeed showcases Sergeant’s elegant vocals, well-balanced as she moves along with her impressive range.
“Black Magic” is a terrific finale, both musically and philosophically. In this rendition, Sergeant performs the standard afresh. The whole band buzzes with kinetic energy, as the give-and-take between Sergeant and Nash gathers steam, which ultimately falls into abandon with the music tailing off. It’s curtains down, music off, sand-returns-to-sand. But those who have been fortunate to listen to this opus will have Falling forever etched into their hearts. With this brilliant album, Sergeant has gone beyond music. She is a conceptual artist who has imagined and manifested a dramatic rendering of what it means to surrender. She has given herself so fully to this project, and she’s created a truly electric experience. It is shimmering in its originality and piercing in its emotional effect. Brava!