Jazz on the pop side of the street 

The unexpected music of Sonya Kitchell

"It's really everything in life," says singer/songwriter Sonya Kitchell, explaining what sparks her creativity. "It can be the color of sunlight. It can be watching somebody on a stoop. It can be listening to sirens outside a window, or it could be anything."

Sure, you could dismiss this as an evasive, teenage shrug of sorts. That is until you spin this 17-year-old's song "Train" on her debut disc, Words Come Back To Me. The lyrics in their stripped simplicity and soft-lipped delivery ache with a fundamental desire that belies the young voice singing them --- a voice wallowing in a bed of velvety, jazzy acoustic pop.

"I sink into my seat, and I pray for it to speed up/while I wish it would slow down," she sings with trepidation and wonder.

You let it ride into the next cut, "Can't Get You Out Of My Mind" and you begin to take notice of the little hairs on the back of your neck as they begin to take notice. This song in particular has Kitchell's sultry voice wrapped around the steamy melody at a slow burn 'n' boil. You know, the way it's supposed to feel.

Kitchell's sound is that of the caffeinated songwriter swizzled with cocktail jazz. It tenders pop comfort while at the same time unnerving --- just a smidge --- with its underlying smolder.

"I would call it alternative soulful pop," she says. "Or something like that, because... I guess...that's what it is."

Call it what you will, it's taking off, and taking Kitchell along for the ride to places like San Diego, where she took this call, to high-end joints like Carnegie Hall, where she recently played in a concert paying tribute to the music of Joni Mitchell. One might even make a comparison here. Some already have, tossing Norah Jones in the equation.

But Kitchell's more Mitchell than Jones; the jazz elements are crisp and apparent, but softened to the point they won't intimidate or baffle the average latte lapper at Starbucks (which, incidentally, co-released Words Come Back To Me through its Hear Music label with Velour Music Group). Though she started out singing jazz as a child, as far as Kitchell's concerned it's merely one musical element --- one that's possibly on the wane.

"I think that probably the biggest remaining jazz component is the melodies and the chords," she says. Her band's spatially aware reverence and tone doesn't hurt either.

Within the existing jazz atmosphere lies Kitchell's simple, somewhat understated guitar picking --- all barefoot and earthy. It gives her music a tug in the folk direction until the lyrics give a gentle yank back toward the pop side of the street. It's a subtle, slow-motion see-saw surprise.

"I really like for music to be unexpected," she says.

Like her metaphorical train, things are barreling along faster and faster for Kitchell. People want --- need --- this type of music; unabashed, genuine, and with soul. And with glowing reviews and all-star pats on the back from cats like Herbie Hancock and David Letterman, more folks will get to hear Kitchell's music. But it's music in flux. Sonya Kitchell'sgonna change.

"I wouldn't say 'beef up,'" she says. "Because for me what's really important in all of my music is the fact that there's a lot of space and it's really about the songs. It's really important that people hear the songs and the lyrics. So maybe we'll rock out a little more. I think the sound is probably going to become more, well, I guess I could say rock 'n' roll."

Sonya Kitchell plays Monday, June 12, at 8:30 & 10 p.m. at the Club Pass Big Tent as part of the Rochester International Jazz Festival. Tickets cost $15-$20, or free with a Jazz Fest Club Pass. For more information visit www.rochesterjazz.com.

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