Katie here again, and if you’ve been following along so far, we have an amazing list of artists, all of whom have something different to offer. We’ve got laid-bare folk and alt-country, pure rock ‘n’ roll, narrative songwriters who defy description (I’m looking at you, Stew), and, not kidding— you can look back in the timeline— a harpist who plays rock songs.
When I tell you that Underwater Sunshine Fest’s greatest strength is its diversity, I’m not kidding: and yes, this is the wind-up for the curve ball. This week’s spotlight artist is the phenomenal, Grammy-nominated Yellow House Orchestra. And if you think you will see anything else like them— maybe anywhere— you’re sadly mistaken. You’re going to have to come to the Bowery Electric and see them with us in October.
Yellow House Orchestra is a Latin jazz band, and despite their being from California (I’ll forgive them), they make me homesick for my precious Texas. Every time I put on their record Orale Pues, I feel the same rhythm and speed and jazz of being “home.” I’ve lived in the Midwest since I was 18, but this is the kind of music that brings you back to your first home: this music helps you travel. There is room to move around— mentally and, if you are like me and can’t help swaying and moving to a good rhythm, physically, in these songs.
With influences ranging from Herbie Hancock to Tito Puentes to Sting, there’s something for everyone in their compositions— and I call them “compositions,” not songs, because these are crafted and composed. Jazz is experimental and often improvisational: it’s, again, a music and a rhythm you feel more than you understand. But this feels so natural, it’s impossible not to feel like these notes were put together in an order specifically to help you, as they say in “Los Sentidos,” “Open your eyes and use your senses now.”
The music is sensual: it’s full of the kind of synesthesia, or blended sense understandings, that characterize the best music. It almost feels like you can hear color. (In fact, so much so that I wondered if “Yellow House Orchestra” was descriptive of a place or the feeling: there are absolutely some bright yellow moments in every song.) What’s most interesting about a line like “Open your eyes and use your senses now” is that it’s commanding, but it’s also something that frees you: it invites you to become a part of the sensual experience of the song. Weirdly, though, the next line— “What are those anyway?”— forces reflection back on the listener. Like I said: this record is sensual but it confuses your senses as well. In an old Arcade Fire song, “Antichrist Television Blues,” they use the phrase “nothing tastes good” to express that the narrator’s getting what he wanted wasn’t actually a good thing. I share that specifically because I swear: these kinds of songs are the ones that make things taste good. They make you smell that vacation you took fifteen years ago. They allow you to travel in your mind to colorful, exciting locations. And all of that sounds completely insane— unless you’re listening to the music. Then you are enshrouded in a cloud of joy, wonder, and— well, yes, color. (For the record, “Los Sentidos” just keeps building until it comes to the line: “I can’t close my eyes/ Until you open your eyes.” This idea, that the sensation of creating a space for people to come together and just experience music is the only thing that will help the narrator relax— well, from a writing standpoint, that’s a remarkable turn. It’s like promising your partner that you’ll go to sleep, but only after you watch them fall asleep. There is a remarkable comfort to it.)
They play covers of old Latin jazz standards, but they also create their own original sounds. They’ve found a way to take “conventional” Latin jazz and add Western rhythms, sometimes Western lyrics, and blend them seamlessly. In songs like “Mamacita,” the brass is so comforting and grounding that you almost can’t help but hang on every note. Whether you speak Spanish or not, the lyrics are evocative: there is a longing and a pleading that is absolutely tactile.
Don’t think it’s all the same tone though: when people hear “jazz,” a lot of times they think there will be a lot of predictable upbeat tunes they’re already familiar with. I assure you, Yellow House Orchestra is already doing some revolutionary things, but they also know how to slow down the pace and allow for some breath in the set. The song “Radio” has a completely different pace, but the same instruments, vocals, and lyrics shine through: the piano allows for a melancholy that the horn backs up, but with nine minutes, it feels like a journey. You get lyrics like, “I changed to 94.9, it brings me back to the old days, the old ways/ What ever happened to the good old days?” But as you’re getting comfortable with the subject matter, it turns: “Why couldn’t you stay, stay with me for a little while?” The radio fading away and not being a universal language anymore becomes a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of relationships, the way things can just fade away if you’re not paying attention.
I want you to pay attention to Yellow House Orchestra. This is the kind of band that, if I were home, I could move around radio stations until I found something beautiful, longing, and different like this. Dallas is great that way. But what really makes them stand out is the way they use the Latin infusion to create an entire soundscape: the way the guitar can play with or against the piano, the way the vocals can be faster or slower than the piece. They’ve mastered the heart of jazz, which to me has always been about finding an honesty and movement that is almost too raw to say outside of an improvisational context. The seamless blend of English and Spanish lyrics make it even better.
You might not be Texan, or Californian, and maybe this music doesn’t sound like your childhood— so in that case, I’ll let the great Lyle Lovett explain why you need to open your heart, your ears— your eyes. As he says, “That’s right, you’re not from Texas/ Texas wants you anyway.” Well: maybe you don’t know a lot of Spanish, and maybe you don’t know a lot of jazz. Maybe you weren’t expecting that at a festival like Underwater Sunshine Fest (though I hope our continued surprises are making it clear that we want incredible diversity in bands): but, that’s right. You might not know Yellow House Orchestra yet. Yellow House Orchestra is going to enchant you anyway.