It’s a surprisingly pleasant night in August — a rarity for New York City’s summertime weather — and the experimental jazz vocalist and producer Melanie Charles is on a stage in Brooklyn named after the celebrated singer and activist Lena Horne. She’s dressed in silver and standing in front of a sound board with dozens of knobs and criss-crossing wires. To her left is the drummer, Cinque Kemp, and behind her is the bassist Jonathan Michel. Charles was there as part of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, a yearly event in which the most noted names in local jazz come together for an evening under the stars in Prospect Park. And while the other performers there certainly had fire, their sounds were more conventional compared with those of Charles, whose glitchy remixes perplexed the audience.
Under the proclamation “Make Jazz Trill Again,” Charles, a Brooklyn-raised performer of Haitian descent, has made a habit of confusing listeners in New York City and beyond. In one moment she can remake Aretha Franklin’s “Day Dreaming” into an upbeat stomp of hard drums and bass, punctuated by Franklin’s own sampled voice. The next she’s singing alongside rappers Quelle Chris, Mach-Hommy or Pink Siifu, adding light flourishes to Kassa Overall’s esoteric mix of jazz, rap and soul, or featuring at the Lincoln Center as a guest of Wynton Marsalis. She conveys all forms and eras of Black music, upholding the spirits of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald without sacrificing the youth of today’s art.
By blending older and newer sounds, she creates a unique strain of jazz that should cater to wide groups of listeners. At the show I saw in Brooklyn, I could tell the patrons didn’t know how to take Charles. At one point, during the call-and-response part of her remix of Marlena Shaw’s “Woman of the Ghetto,” she asked all the women, no matter their race, to proclaim their hood status (“I’m a woman of the ghetto,” Charles implored them to sing). The response was muted; the non-Black women didn’t feel comfortable repeating the line. Undeterred, Charles laid the gauntlet for her career moving forward: She’s gonna do her thing regardless; everyone else will just have to catch up.
Charles exhibits this bravery throughout her latest album, Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women, a pairing of original tracks with “reimagined” ones from the likes of Washington, Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter. In the case of “Detour,” which features Vaughan’s original vocals over a modernized style of R&B, the song has always been a salve for Charles in moments of doubt and sadness. Her decision to flip the song also coincided with her purchasing a Polaroid camera in March 2020, a time when life as we knew it would change. “Not knowing that this camera would capture one of the greatest challenges my community of friends, family and world at large has ever experienced,” she said in press materials. “The images tell the story of how the pandemic pushed us to ‘wake up and slow down’ as Sarah beautifully sings.”
The genesis of this album dates back to 2019 when she was approached by Verve Records to craft a remix album using the label’s catalog. Then the pandemic took hold as America once again reckoned with racial and ideological divides, and Charles’ creative approach shifted. The death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police while she slept in her bed, hit her the hardest. “I was rudely reminded that Black women are and always have been undervalued, uncared for, unprotected and neglected,” Charles said in a press statement. “It was at that point that I decided to focus on songs written and or sung by the Black women who paved the way for me.”
As a result, Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women is bold and necessary, a powerful set of repurposed jazz that properly honors her diverse influences. By selecting buoyant and downtempo tracks that highlight various aspects of Blackness and Black womanhood, Charles offers a nuanced glimpse into the struggles and jubilation of daily existence. She paints a full picture, refuting the negative tropes typically portrayed in the media. It envisions a world in which Black women can express themselves most abundantly.
Though the album is full of show-stopping moments, my ear keeps returning to Washington’s “What A Difference,” a sauntering ballad that Charles updates with stuttering electronics, muffled vocals and echoes, giving the track a futuristic essence. The same goes for “Perdido,” a merging of original and newer vocals and updated production, a shape-shifting cut mixed to sound like it’s playing on a dusty clock radio. In the end, Charles does an outstanding job of building something that lends itself to deep exploration. Both educational and entertaining, it reveals everything that jazz can be.