Once Google reluctantly accepts that you really do mean to search for “NYChillharmonic” and not “NY Philharmonic,” it turns up a few results from publications that are not the usual suspects. In the past few years, the band and its 2014 EP A Very Tiny Big Band Album have earned attention from sites such as Hardbop Jazz Journal and Revive-Music, an online source for genre-melding contemporary jazz—a reflection of the music landscape from which it stems.
Frontwoman and bandleader Sara McDonald is a star in the jazz world. She has a degree in vocal jazz from The New School of Jazz, a 2014 Herb Alpert award for best young jazz composer, and a performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival under her belt, among other accolades. In The NYChillharmonic, which she started in 2013, she is well equipped to command the orchestra-sized band—complete with big-band horn section, string quartet, and electric rock and pop instruments—that accompanies her on their full-length debut 1.
And command it she does. Through the explosive horns, cinematic strings, rock drum kits, and other musical flourishes that come and go throughout the seven songs, McDonald’s gentle yet powerful voice grounds compositions whose meandering structures borrow heavily from jazz. Using her training, she finds a wide range of expression within narrow bounds, employing subtle shifts to sound at one moment euphoric, at another angry, eerie, or vulnerable. Guiding these changes are breezy lyrics that are intimate but so dreamy that they occasionally enter the territory of the surreal. “I could see beyond the seven seas / But I would feel as though my skies were lost,” she sings in “Surface Tension,” in a phrase that strikes a chord on an abstract, poetic plane.
McDonald often further abstracts her lyrics using repetition, which removes her vocals from linear narrative and turns them into another instrumental voice among the many that float and twist along sprawling compositions. The average length of the seven tracks is five and a half minutes, and each one follows a structure unrecognizable in pop music. Freed from the constraints of typical verses and choruses, the songs on the album explore more expressive patterns. On “Patterned,” for example, a song about relationship woes (“Broken voice I shout out loud to mask our great divide”), the structure echoes a drawn-out fight. It starts anxiously but not loudly, erupts into shouts of horns and falsetto voice, then quiets down in a reflective section that asks, “How can I be all you need, baby?” over the sound of breaking glass. In “Sun,” too, this marriage of form and content repeats more warmly in a bright, melodious song about the sun rising.
Form and content is just one of many marriages you can find on 1, the happiest of which is probably genres. Blending jazz and big band with contemporary music, The NYChillharmonic creates something that manages to sound a little like art rock and a lot like something that you’ve never heard before. Born from jazz but grown up into another place entirely, Sara McDonald can count this album as one more impressive accomplishment under her belt.