An intriguing and positive blend of musical styles from a diversely talented artist.
Ida Jo is clearly multi-talented, as can be gleaned from her website wherein you can discover her award-winning music, her visual art, writing, and expertise in yoga. The paintings are very effective with bright splashes of almost Rorschachian ink-blot beauty (check out the cover of her album, ‘Language in the Light’). Jo also holds the title Yoga Acharya (Master of Yoga) as well as a master’s degree in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation. In partnership with Ghosh’s Yoga College of Kolkata, she travels around the world to facilitate workshops and training events. She has written and published several books on the Ghosh Yoga tradition and edited two historic manuscripts. Hopefully, it’s not too twee or obvious to say that this extensive acquaintance with yoga, with all of its positivity and grounded optimism, is reflected in the artist’s lyrics, many of which countenance the brighter, thoughtful side of life.
As a violinist, Jo uses a seldom heard technique that is apparently a combination of a folk style called ‘chopping’ and her classical training. She is said to be one of only a handful of violinists in the world to play in the style. In my ignorance I felt that it sounded a great deal like a well-played violin; the technical subtleties were lost on my ignorant ear. Here’s a more informed view of her playing from John Ziegler in which he describes the melding of two styles of playing,
‘Combining her classical background (beginning with the standard Suzuki method) with folk fiddle stylings including “chopping” into something very individual where she can play rhythm, harmony and melody at the same time. This is something that some of the most brilliant guitarists work their way into, but I’ve never heard a violinist do the same’.
What has puzzled me is any comparator that might locate Jo’s music, particularly her voice, within the genre. Suggestions from elsewhere of Grace Slick, Adele, and Joss Stone didn’t really convince me. In a positive way, it sounds familiar but I couldn’t really say to who. Perhaps therein lies its charm?
‘Bones‘, is Jo’s ninth album if I read the biography correctly and the first eight were produced in 7 years. She feels that the slower pace of the current recording was, not surprisingly, advantageous. All songs are written by Jo who sings and plays violin and mandolin. Producer and Emmy award-winning composer Scott Lamps plays upright bass as well as acoustic and electric guitar. As always acoustic bass breathes life into the music like nothing else.
Jo explains, ‘Over the course of the pandemic I collaborated with friends from India to do online fundraiser concerts’, Much of the inspiration came from these events. ‘2020 was a time when everyone was going to lose someone or something. It became clear to me that everyone losing a little-rather than some losing everything-was the best we could hope for’, This is a laudably positive re-framing of a dire situation – although just today it is reported that excess deaths in India during this time have been of the order of 4 million rather than the 400,000 originally calculated.
In, ‘Pennies and Songs’, Jo writes, ‘I have a penny, I have a song / They’ve been enough to keep me going, they’ve been enough to keep me strong / I have to see now what they can do for you / Because there’s no use in saving me if you don’t make it through’. This theme is amplified in, ‘Star Dust,’ reminding us that if we, ‘Stop looking in the wrong places / At only what can be seen / To find that miracles live in the spaces / In the spaces in between’.
Another song to come out of the events of 2020 was, ‘Songbird’. Jo explains, ‘I knew this song was bigger than I could fully grasp when I started writing it’. With new events unfolding, the song came to life line by line. “This song is about being told to sing for your life – to make music, make art-but at the same time to know that those activities require reflection in what is a deeply painful time. ‘Songbird’, name-checks St Francis and Martin Luther King and asks, ‘Now my voice is too heavy to sing /How does a Songbird take flight with a clipped wing’, a sentiment which seems apt for the times we live in.
Whether one looks at recent events as an optimist, pessimist or realist is, I guess, a matter of choice and disposition? The album at its best is a lush affair and the stand-out track is, ‘Bones’, which captures that mood beautifully with its restrained vocal and lambent air. ‘Bones’, is inspired by the myth of bone woman – an old woman who works to preserve that which is about to be lost.
These bones taught me what it means to be free / These bones carried me through the wild country / These bones came from sound / And they’ll make their way back to the ground / These bones will again be free / Till then they’ll carry me.
There are well-rendered images throughout and, ‘Get Lonely’ seems to be a welcome antidote of sorts to the ‘rambling, gambling, gotta move on’ male take on the subject. Jo is of the view that, ‘When I move on somehow I stay’. Having just re-read, ‘Bound for Glory’’, Woody certainly had his issues, but it can only be concluded that his nomadic life was very self-centred, and often very dependent on others who rarely had the luxury of freedom.
‘Good and Kind’ is a simple idea well put without being cloying, complete with a nice bass break – one of the few on the album. There are though two issues for me – the first being that I would have liked to have heard a bit more of that violin. It is some time ago that her second album drew a similar comment, not necessarily negative, that,
‘Her fiddle is used texturally and subtly and blends into the overall picture in subdued tones’
Secondly, I would have liked a little change of mood – entertaining as it is there is a sameness of sound that is a little counter-productive – let that violin rip now and again! But, when all is considered if ever there was a time for a message with some upbeat in it then surely – now’s the time.
Were it not for the fact that this is a ninth recording I would suggest that there is plenty on show for a promising future with scope to hone the songwriting and add a little more light and shade to the music (which may in fact exist on some of her other offerings)? In the circumstances that might seem a little patronising – if not necessarily wholly untrue?
And Jo is a native of Duluth – so the omens must be good!