Album Review: Elizabeth Zimmerman — ‘Roots of Rhythm’

The first song on Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Roots Of Rhythm, “The Journey,” is just her voice and piano. It brings Judee Sill immediately to mind. It combines pleasant, subtly modulated vocal style with an intricately worked melody and introspective lyrics. She presents to the listener as an inviting, fascinating mystery. The arrangement is masterfully simple. She brings in hummed backing vocals toward the end, so low in the mix that you wonder if they’re actually there.

“Bending Blues” leans on the blues pentatonic scale in the verse but modulates in the chorus to something poppier. You could imagine Sheryl Crow covering this song — but she wouldn’t use the light touch Zimmerman brings to her vocals. Zimmerman never raises her voice or belts the chorus for the back rows. She makes you lean in, and her voice is most powerful when it’s quietest.

“Make Him a Poor Boy” stays in the blues pocket vocally, playing against a subtly dissonant repeated figure from her Fender Rhodes electric piano. The chorus breaks the tension, while remaining steadfastly bluesy. “The Nile” uses the same kind of “eastern” scale as you hear in the novelty song “Istanbul,” most recently made famous by They Might Be Giants. It carries a hint of nostalgia for a time when anything east & south of Rome was exotic.

“What I Need” adds atmospheric background sounds of unknown origin — synthesizer? violin? guitar? — that underpin an emotionally bare song with mystery. “I know what I need to get by,” she sings, sounding unsure whether she’s going to get it. “The Love We Can’t Do,” like “The Journey,” strays a bit from the blues into melodic pop. “Some kind of black magic holding true,” Zimmerman sings. “There’s voodoo on me to love you.” It underlines the constant themes of the album: mystery and uncertainty.

Zimmerman has an easy familiarity with the blues scale, and incorporates it into many of the songs on Roots Of Rhythm, bringing her unique spark. But the songs that seem most personal and original — “The Journey,” “Broken in Blue” — are the least tied to jazz or blues.

“The Wish” is a stunning song in that vein. As she performs it, it sounds easy and natural, but it would be a difficult song to learn, with its start/stop phrasing, instrumental asides and long verses. The melody peaks in long notes on the words “All my life wishing on a star,” and their simplicity feels like the sun coming out after the sometimes stormy verse.

Zimmerman is a natural singer, effortlessly tuneful and able to put great feeling into a song without shouting. Her piano playing finds a groove and rides it without unnecessary adornment, and it supports her voice perfectly. She can write and sing in a jazz/blues style, but finds her voice most purely on songs based in the pop vernacular. Still, this is a rewarding start-to-finish listen. If her music speaks to your condition, it will leave you wanting more.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 292.

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