Nicolay: City Lights, Vol. 3: Soweto
Nicolay has traveled a long way, both literally and figuratively, since the days he went by the name Matthijs Rook in his Utrecht, Netherlands homeland. Not all that many years ago, he was issuing hip-hop jams on a release such as Here (BBE, 2006), but over time his music has undergone a substantial metamorphosis, as exemplified by the albums he's released with Phonte under The Foreign Exchange name and perhaps even more dramatically the Nujazz-styled albums he's issued in the City Lights series. Six years ago, the second installment, City Lights, Vol. 2: Shibuya, distilled into musical form the visceral thrill associated with a visit to Tokyo, and now this latest volume does much the same whilst displacing the geographical focus to South Africa.
It's very much a Nicolay solo affair: with the exception of a contribution by guitarist Chris Boerner, Nicolay performs all of the instruments himself, and the album's resplendent workouts teem with synthesizers, pianos (acoustic and electric), bass lines, drum grooves, and percussive colour. Anything but lugubrious, the tracks are effervescent in tone, and while they might draw from numerous styles, fusion, R'n'B, house, and funk among them, they ultimately transcend easy pigeon-holing. And though there are vocal elements sprinkled throughout, City Lights, Vol. 3: Soweto plays like an instrumental set that treats vocals as one element of many. Among the voices heard are those of Phonte (who co-wrote seven of the ten songs), Carmen Rodgers, and Tamisha Waden, plus an occasional Zulu lesson from Johannesburg native Nomusa Nzima appears to make the South African connection explicit.
The album's celebratory spirit is evident from the moment “Tomorrow” rolls out its infectious swing and joyous themes, with Nicolay amplifying the music's rousing vibe with layer upon layer of synthesizers and vocal accents. An ear-catching symbiosis is achieved in the way he irradiates the tracks' earthy rhythms with sleek keyboard textures and smoothly enunciated singing, and the rhythm dimension is accentuated also in the way he builds the tracks from the ground up. Though “Aurora,” for example, is sweetened with a generous supply of melodic sparkle and a soulful vocal by Waden, it's the song's tight funk-fusion drum groove that is its foundation.
Nowhere is the forty-nine-minute recording's uplifting spirit more on display than during “The Brightest Star,” a breezy uptempo thumper whose bright vocal accents lend the piece something of a Pat Metheny Group vibe. The irrepressible tone of the material is bolstered by the gyroscopic animation of its rhythms, but that's hardly the only time that happens on this consistently dynamic collection. As much as we love The Foreign Exchange, it's great to hear Nicolay stepping out on his own once in while, too, especially when the result is something as swoon-worthy as the soul-funk jam “The Secret.”