On this CD, Helm - who lives in Durham, North Carolina, where she is a Visiting Instructor in the Jazz Studies Program and Music Department at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) - is supported by an impassioned and impressive core rhythm section featuring drummer Larry "Q" Draughn, Jr., bassist Lance E. Scott, Jr., and pianist Ryan Hanseler. They lay down a sensitive and swinging magic carpet for Helm to soar as she works her moving and velvet soprano as it weaves its spell -forged in the aching embers of Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln.
The primal, percussive "Huntress," inspired Sam White's book of poems: The Goddess of the Hunt Is Not Herself; the haunting, cymbal-shimmered "Beauty," a tribute to Helm's maternal grandmother Helen Amelia Graine Faulk, a legendary matriarch and Chicago cosmetologist; and the dancing lead track, "Tears Are A River That Take You Someplace" - a line taken from Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God - are three selections from Journeywoman: A Work in Progress, Helm's five-part suite, written as a result of winningthe 2004 Chamber Music America/ Doris Duke Foundation's New Jazz Works grant for jazz composers - making her the first African-American to win that award.
The moving and midtempo title track, augmented by an ethereal vocal choir arrangement, is another Hurston-inspired gem titled after an anthology of her works. "Begin Again" is a wistful vocal/piano duet based on Rudyard Kipling's poem "If," and Alice Walker's The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart, featuring NCCU piano professor, Ed Paolanotino. Helm's aural alchemy is equally phenomenal with her stunning renditions of jazz standards. "Skies of Bud (Blues Skies/Suddenly (In Walked Bud)" was birthed from her conversations with Chicago griot/jazz historian Donald "Poppa" Meade, and stays true to Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud," laced with lyrics by Jon Hendricks and Helm's lyric to Irving Berlin's melody. Helm's reading of three books - Ross Russell's Bird Lives, Duke Ellington's Music Is My Mistress and J.C. Thomas Takin' The Trane, with the writings of Neale Donald Walsch and become "Charlie Parker's Tale, "I Didn't Know About You," and "A Conversation with God (Dear Lord)," with vocalist Michael Hanna, grandson of piano giant Roland Hanna.
Helm also delivers a moving rendition of Joni Mitchell's version of the immortal Charles Mingus elegy to Lester Young, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," with Brian Horton's serpentine soprano sax solo, and "Sampson's Nemesis (Delilah)" is an inventive reinterpretation of the Victor Young standard "Delilah" made famous by trumpeter Clifford Brown. Her take on Jason Moran's Capetown-cadenced, "Ripples (RFK in the Land of Apartheid)" from the 2011 PBS documentary - based on a speech Robert F. Kennedy made when he toured South Africa in 1966, dances with the kind of message-oriented, Motherland pulses that are a vital part of the jazz continuum. The CD closes with a stirring, solo performance of the hymn, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," inspired by her surviving a car crash during the making of this CD. Her friend, vocalist Nnenna Freelon, who just lost her mother, asked Helm to sing it at a memorial service, and the piece also evokes the eternal spirit of Helm's maternal grandmother.
Lenora Zenzalai Helm's infinite variety of musical experiences originate from her birthplace, Chicago, where she was born into a musical family. At the age of eight she started singing and later learned to play trumpet, organ, piano, and guitar. After moving to New York in 1987, she worked with a number of artists including saxophonists Dave Liebman, Antonio Hart and Branford Marsalis, and pianists Donald Brown and Andrew Hill. She was the first African-American woman to receive a B.A. in Film Music Composition/Voice from Berklee School of Music in Boston in 1982. In 1994, she won Best New Jazz Artist from the syndicated Jazz in the City radio program. Her previous recordings as a leader include Awakenings (Baoule Music, 1997), Spirit Child (J Curve, 1999), Precipice (Baoule Music, 2002), Voice Paintings (MidLantic Records 2003/2007) and Chronicles of a Butterfly (Zenzalai Music, 2009).
Helm's jazz suite, Journeywoman: A Work in Progress, was written as a result of winning Chamber Music America's New Works: Creation & Presentation Award for Jazz Composers in 2004 and the Encore Award in2007. She also received awards from other organizations including Meet the Composer and a coveted Composer Fellowship from the MacDowell Colony, the oldest artist's colony in the United States. Her film music composer credits include After Life by writer/director Lana, previewed and awarded in 2007 at the Arizona Black Film Festival and the Village D Cinema festival in Lisbon, Portugal. Helm's extensive educational credentials include a MA in Jazz Performance form East Carolina University, and work as a teacher/clinician at numerous schools and institutions including The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Long Island Performing Arts High School, and Carnegie Hall/Link Up.She served as a Jazz Ambassador for the United States State Department and John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts 1998-99. She currently serves as a Visiting Instructor in the Music Department at North Carolina Central University.
All of Lenora Zenzalai Helm's broad artistry and experience make I Love Myself When I'm Laughing ... And Then Again When I'm Looking Mean and Impressive the wonderful masterpiece that it is. As Lana Garland writes in the CD liner notes, "I Love Myself When I'm Laughingis a barefoot walk around the human experience and the tourguide, Lenora Zenzalai Helm, makes us listen, ponder, swing a little, listen and thenswing some more! Grasping all the nuances, colors, and details of this well-crafted worktakes time. It is a treasure that must be listened to over and again and as Henry Millersuggests, you will forget yourself."