It’s easier to catch lightning in a bottle than to catch D.C. singer Alison Crockett’s riveting, forceful command of the stage on a record. But Obrigada comes remarkably close. It marks a turning point for the jazz and neo-soul songstress, who on the six-song EP has reshaped her music to accommodate the bossa nova she fell in love with while working in São Paulo. That’s the party line on Obrigada, anyway: In reality, just as often as the reverse, it’s the Brazilian music that’s reshaped to fit Crockett.
Witness the standard “O Cantador,” the single, whose very title—the only one in Portuguese—marks it as the most overtly Brazilian. Not so. Crockett smooths out the rhythm, sings in English, and floods the ballad with her own nuances. At her touch, the melody’s sudden wide intervals—often rendered as impassioned showpieces—become tender and graceful sweeps; and nobody, surely, has ever sung the line “Let it be me” with a longing so palpable. It’s a few ride-cymbal subtleties here and there from Paulinho Vicente that signify its bossa origins.
Most of the other tunes get to keep the familiar Brazilian cadences. Even then, though, Crockett often subserviates them to her artistic personality. Her original “Every Song” is already a manifesto of sorts (“Every/ Song that I sing/ Seems to/ Have a message/ About/ What I have to do”). The line breaks form into rhythmic patterns that all but have MADE IN BRAZIL stamped on them, yet it takes concentrated listening to even notice them. Instead, Crockett’s velvet voice and masterful time make them into thrillers: She pulls the ear to precipice after precipice, threatening to fall over but always landing the jump.
That same sense of time and rhythm lets her make some canny connections. In the children’s song “Each of Us Is a Flower”—written as a cha-cha-cha—she hears the transposition into bossa, but also the hidden depths she can bring to its facile melody. The longer leap is on “Something Wonderful,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein aria from The King and I. It’s not a song one immediately associates with playfulness, but Crockett manages to inject the newly grooving lyric with grit—and a charming scat break in the middle that’s followed by an equally charming piano solo from Felipe Silviera.
The thing about all of these songs, however, is that they all follow the opening “You’re Everything,” which means that all expectations have been dashed away by the time they come up. Crockett begins on a flowing ballad, her multi-tracked harmonies floating over the gentle lilt of Silviera’s piano, then inevitably kicks up a notch—not into bossa, but into low-key funk. Then it kicks up another notch, and Crockett’s soul chops roar forth like a lion on the bridge: “Days are so much fun/ For those who know in love all life’s a game.” Silviera solos again while Crocket whispers to herself in multi-track counterpoint, then she scats over a live-wire funk breakdown. It’s disarming in nearly a literal sense: The singer breaks us down completely, so that what would be a change-up anyway now strikes where there is no armor.