In Praise of Rhiannon

Living in a culture where the surest way for a woman to achieve notoriety and celebrity is to inexpertly perform fellatio on a homemade sex tape, disingenuously decry its orchestrated release on the Internet, and then snag a “reality show” that broadcasts her inane yammering in excruciating detail, one desperately needs occasional doses of pure aesthetic beauty to mend the heart. These rejuvenating moments remind us that the joy — and sometimes the agony — of art (as opposed to disposable recorded entertainment) can still transcend all that is debased, depraved, and cynical in our modern lives. They remind us that there are still Empresses, Priestesses, and Goddesses in our midst, and they can lead us to beautiful places if we let them. 

Since experiencing epiphanies generally requires turning off the TV, most Americans remain blissfully unaware that such moments are possible. Indeed, the ecstatic joy of creation has been supplanted by the purchase of a new Lexus, the slimming of the plasma screen, the addition of another bathroom to the homestead. Bearing witness to the magic of spontaneous art, of an idea imbued with feeling and intelligence, isn’t something most people care about. But for those that do, being in the same room with a woman named Rhiannon is good for the soul.

Some call her a jazz singer, perhaps the greatest exponent of the form alive today. Others think she is a shaman, summoning spirits and allowing them to speak through her body, a stout receptive vessel that refuses to be hindered by the fears and cynicism that paralyze less brave performers. I don’t know what she is exactly. I do know, however, that what she creates makes me glad to be alive.

Rhiannon, who lives in the Bay Area, has collaborated with another genius there, Bobby McFerrin, in his Voicestra ensemble. Sometimes she performs with a jazz trio. Sometimes two singing cohorts join her, in a group called WeB3. Sometimes WeB3 invites a pianist to join in the improvising; sometimes the audience, too. This was the arrangement last week at The Vic, the cozy, once-a-week jazz club in Santa Monica that’s small enough and smart enough to book artists the larger clubs can’t or won’t handle. Everything was made up on the spot — the melodies, the rhythms, the harmonies, the words, the endings. Impossible, right? In the hands (and voices) of less skilled craftsmen, such an experiment can result in incoherent bumbling that excuses itself with the label “performance art.” When Rhiannon and her colleagues assay the challenge, those who witness and participate in the creation are reminded of the glory (and heartache, and grace, and mystery) of being a human with ears and eyes and a capacity to feel deeply. WeB3 sings with their collective ears. They listen with their hips. They think with their hearts.

Rhiannon, like all great artists, has mastered her craft. She produces sound beautifully, with a pliant, responsive instrument that sounds like anything she wants, and she swings like crazy. What elevates her beyond the pleasures of fine craftsmanship into the ethereal realm of art is her willingness to use her talent to tell the truth: about herself, about the world, about the moment. At the conclusion of WeB3’s first set last week, as the beat (produced vocally) dwindled and the sound faded, she sang out, “If I could be a song, I would be perfect.”

Despite overwhelming and omnipresent evidence to the contrary, listening to Rhiannon you feel as though all us human beings, with our myriad flaws, our capacity for cruelty, our startling imperfections, can be redeemed by a song.

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