It’s equal parts self-realization, multicultural exploration and multi-genre experimentation. Composer-Guitarist-Vocalist Emaginario aka Ethan Margolis has been creatively crosspollinating acclaimed recording and video projects featuring him in the company of world-class musicians for more than two decades. He wrote seven of the eight songs that comprise “Songs Of Mind,” an intimate and lush collection of acoustic jazz and singer-songwriter Americana tunes with elements of flamenco. Margolis meticulously produced the set that arrives November 17 on the Sir Sultry Music label.
Having fully realized his identity as a prodigious guitar player, “Songs Of Mind” can be described as Margolis stepping into his identity as a singer-songwriter. Emaginario immersed himself in flamenco guitar in Spain where he lived for more than a decade thus his artistic musical “voice” was primarily instrumental. He relished the freedom inherent in jazz, which he took as a visa to become an alchemist mixing in Cuban, Delta blues and Americana music. As the son of acclaimed singer-songwriter Ken Margolis (The Choir), he was born with an innate skillset that couldn’t be ignored or kept dormant.
“I value songwriting immensely because of its unique ability to transmit human stories in a way that's understandable to everyone. The difficulty in getting here was for me to understand my sound as a singer-songwriter. With so many interests in varying genres and with such a long stint in Spain, it's taken a very long time for me to understand myself as a musician. I am a composer-guitarist foremost, but I am also a singer of songs. It was important for me to get that out in a contemporary way with a sound that reflected my life experiences,” said Margolis who now resides in Southern California after establishing lengthy residencies in Spain.
Stylistically and sonically for “Songs Of Mind,” Margolis elected to pair his nylon-string flamenco guitar with a jazz piano, the role masterfully filled by Grammy-winning pianist Ruslan Sirota.
“Instead of playing the flamenco guitar like a flamenco musician, I played it with the mindset of a session player on the recordings - doubling guitars, playing softly with no fingernails, recording with
many mics and planning for a guitar sound that would be unique to me but also sound like Americana,” said Margolis, who will launch the new album with concert dates in Solvang (November 16 at The Last Chord) and Topanga Canyon (November 17 at Corazón Performing Arts).
Margolis’s voice is as unique as his musical amalgams. His gift is telling stories via singing, scatting and crooning cerebral observations, poetic passages, insightful ruminations and graceful vocalese. Oozing passion and emotional depth, his voice rises and falls from tenor to falsetto and back again, adeptly maintaining full control – even when pivoting on a dime. Margolis’s charismatic voice balances zeal, charm and allure with bouts of bite, sarcasm and snark when his subject matter requires it.
Mixed by two-time Grammy winner Dave O’Donnell (James Taylor, Sheryl Crow, Eric Clapton), “Songs Of Mind” opens with an improvised voice and piano sketch, “Mind Search.” It begins as a vocal exercise and piano warmup that kicks up its heels into snappy flamenco forays seamlessly balanced with freeform jazz runs.
“I have such a strong need to improvise and test my reactions and my heart's output in music that structured recording sessions sometimes bog me down. I knew that Ruslan Sirota was a fantastic improviser and that we could have some fun together, but I never imagined that it would come out the way this one did. There’s an entire painting on one track,” said Margolis, who channeled everything from calypso, Soca, flamenco, R&B, beatbox and scat, resulting in a modern jazz adventure in vocalization with a defined message.
Margolis wrote the hauntingly beautiful “Hoping You Will Find Me” fifteen years ago but held off on recording it. Again, Sirota proves to be the perfect counterpart, providing an exquisite backdrop for the divine love song.
“I knew that it was a strong song when I wrote it, but I never pursued it until it finally made sense. The idea of changing the simple voicings of the chords and recording it with a jazz pianist excited me because I knew it would add the poetic depth the song needed. I believe strongly in doing things with a definitive purpose and sometimes that means...just wait, wait until I can see that it's the right time,” shared Margolis.
Whimsical and joyous, “Mugu Beach” adds a full ensemble to the sublime voice and piano pairing. Romaní percussionist Ramón Porrina constructed the percussion arrangement that backbones the track with augmentation from upright bassist Benjamin Shepherd and soprano saxophonist Katisse Buckingham.
Playing guitar on the track, Margolis said, “Composing jazz and Americana melodies over flamenco rhythms is a passionate and unique point of my musicality. It is extremely hard to do authentically so that both the jazz and flamenco schools are satisfied with the result. On this one, I wanted the production to sound like an older jazz standard with burning accents and slow, melodic vocal phrasing in the styles of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday. I added the soprano saxophone afterwards - played by Katisse - to mimic the accompaniment of Lester Young for Billie Holiday. The vocal phrasing is very much in the Romaní school of the flamenco Bulerías. There are a lot of syncopated stops and vocal rhythmic maneuvers in this song and at the same time, there are many older jazz standard influences.”
Margolis’s defends his jazz-Americana-flamenco doctorate thesis on an imaginative bilingual rendition of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah” that he blends with the Spanish copla "Compañera del Alma." Freeing his hands to focus on delivering an arresting vocal performance, Margolis leaves the improvisational guitar work to Israeli guitarist Dan Ben Lior. Organist Mitchel Forman (Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin) adds the perfect touch. Recorded in Madrid in 2021, the concept for this recording was seeded at shows Margolis performed at Hotel Café and The Baked Potato in Hollywood nine years ago.
Backed by a premier rhythm section in drummer Gary Novak (George Benson, Chick Corea, David Sanborn) and bassist Reggie Hamilton (George Duke, Seal, Mariah Carey) along with Sirota’s coloring, “How Will You Feel” benefits from illuminating background vocals by Keri Lee (John Legend) whose soulful voice intertwines with Margolis’s dulcet falsetto. It’s another chilled world jazz cocktail, but this one is served with a splash of R&B.
“So many people were suffering during the pandemic and confronting deaths of friends and family. I lost some remarkably close friends to the pandemic and the hopelessness was overpowering. It's
like we could all see it coming, and then it came. This song reflects that, but at the same time, it suggests that our souls - when they output love - have done their job. Maybe that's all we need to do in this life,” speculated Margolis.
“Tantrum Town” is a bizarro and eccentric carnival ride penned shortly after the 2020 election and the subsequent attack on the Capitol. Margolis describes the song like “A Clockwork Orange jazz cirque performance in Las Vegas.” It’s a barbed commentary on the politics of the time featuring bassist Tim Lefebvre (David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Sting) and Mike Cottone’s gallant trumpeting in Herb Alpert fashion.
“As if we didn't need more insanity than a pandemic, racially motivated police killings, and then, a president like Donald Trump. I wanted to create a song that sounded like an off-kilter circus - something that grooved with a funky, carousel type repetition. I decided it would add to the song's quirkiness if I sang it in a cabaret 'spoken' voice - like an old show tune,” said Margolis.
Ken Margolis wrote “Seasons” forty years ago, but never recorded it. Ethan, who produced his father’s forthcoming album, “Hope and Courage,” found a way to make the song his own by changing the time signature from 4/4 to 12/8 melded with flamenco ideas of the Soleá style. The scion also changed the lyrical focus - from a man mourning lost love to a love song for our planet.
“I re-wrote the lyrics like mankind issuing an apology for what he had done to Mother Earth when all she has given him was love and resource,” said Ethan on the cut that showcases another sterling appearance by Lee on background vocals and Novak’s deft drumming.
Indulging in what he called “flamenco life” while living in Seville years ago inspired “Walking Back Home,” a breezy and bouncy jaunt that adds calypso into the jazz, Americana and flamenco mélange.
“Arranging it like a calypso song underneath an Americana melody, the result is different and in a strange way, mimics some of the Brazilian songwriters I have heard. Perhaps it's the side sticking and the nylon guitars. The vocalizations under the guitar solo towards the end are very much in a calypso style. The song sounds like pure Americana, but it reminds me of the streets of Spain.”
A Cleveland native, Margolis has already recorded his next Emaginario record, this one tracked in New York City in an acoustic jazz trio setting flanked by bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland that was recorded by five-time Grammy winner James Farber. The album is slated to drop next spring. Margolis is also producing a slate of culturally diverse projects from Latin Grammy nominee Yelsy Heredia featuring percussionist Pedrito Martínez; Jamaican dancehall legend Papa Michigan; and poet Cecilia Woloch about the Romaní Holocaust and Pogroms of Europe.
“Songs Of Mind” contains the following songs:
“Hoping You Will Find Me”
“Hallelujah (Compañera Del Alma)”
“How Will You Feel”
“Walking Back Home”
For more information, please visit https://www.emaginario.com.