Zana Messia and The Balkan Soul Orchestra — Balkan Soul

Mar. 5, 2012

If liking a CD that defies pigeonholing is your idea of a successful musical effort, you will absolutely adore Balkan Soul from Zana Messia and The Balkan Soul Orchestra. Here’s a project full of world flavor and charm boasting of Balkan influence and the ingenious injection of good jazz.

While all of the musicians now reside in good ol’ L.A., the lovely Yugoslavian vocalist Zana Messia manages to pull together this effort that combines her love of traditional jazz with the magic of Balkan Roma music that swept her off her feet as a child. With Fourplay drummer extraordinaire Harvey Mason serving as executive producer (and also demonstrating his skills on percussion, marimba, and vibes), this album is cool, hot, sensuous, modest, and soothing all in one breath.

The music here breathes what Messia feels. As a songwriter, she says, “I live and feel and experience life very deeply, and sometimes I feel like I will look back someday on the struggles and pain I’ve been through and realize that when circumstances were the hardest is when I was most alive. I feel like many people live in shells afraid to experience the amazing variety of emotions that life offers us. The album Balkan Soul is my statement of passion and joy.” How utterly profound, especially when you listen to the poetic and very telling lyrics on this album (oh, and an added treat would be the text of the lyrics printed in the CD jacket). The emotion she pours into this speaks volumes. As she says, “You could put a pop song in front of me and I could sing it just fine, but if you gave me a Billie Holiday tune, or a song from the rich Balkan tradition, I would put my heart in it so much more.” The woman does not mislead. The proof is in the music, rich beyond description.

When you experience the combination of Messia’s tender vocals — sometimes sad and melancholy (with strings for added effect), sometimes upbeat – with the touch of traditional jazz (even ragtime, though very briefly), the contemporary vibe, and the whole Balkan aura (check out the accordion action, by the way), you will quickly agree that not only is this a rich, diverse project, but quite cleverly written and produced.

There are several highlights here. The lead track, “My Invention of You,” blends traditional and some rhythmic island-like contemporary jazz with the sweetness of that Balkan touch. The lovely ballad “Never Loved This Way” is simply riveting.  Then, there’s another catchy island-kissed, Latin-tinged track, “Palm Tree Leaves.” If straight-ahead is your flavor, Messia offers the super straight and jazzy “I’ve Seen Him Before” and Theolonius Monk’s “Round Midnight.” To really bring home the Balkan edge, listen to the stirring and oh-so-deep “Djelem Djelem” (a solemn track passionately sung in her native tongue).

A masterfully done project with a huge accent on perception, diversity, and feel. — Ronald Jackson