One of the things I’ve learned about music over the last couple of years is that there’s a difference between a hybrid genre, such as country-rock or Latin-funk, and playing one genre of music entirely through the lens of another. Mad Love, a Portland-based ensemble led by keyboardist-singer Kathleen Hollingsworth, is basically a jazz trio that delves into other genres such as Americana, rock, pop and R&B. You can hear the jazz deep in the framework of this music, but around the edges it sounds like whatever it wants to be.
On their new album Ish, Mad Love often sounds like a straightforward jazz ensemble–as long as you stay with the rhythm section of drummer Brent Follis and bassist Dave Captein. It’s in the hands of Hollingsworth that Mad Love goes off on various tangents. Her piano playing can complete the trio in a traditional way, but her fondness for electric piano often switches up the feelings. Suddenly you’re back in the early ’70s when people like Joni Mitchell explored jazz, or when Santana applied layer after layer of Latin rhythms until you could barely hear the rock, or when The Byrds said yes to Gram Parsons joining the band. Mad Love doesn’t necessarily sound like any of those glimpses of musical history, but I’m reminded of them while I listen.
A lot of Mad Love’s unique power comes from Kathleen Hollingworth’s strong, clear vocals. On bluesy tracks such as “Easy Rider” she can sound like a real rock diva like Bonnie Raitt or maybe even a more subdued Ann Wilson, and on the country-tinged “Hey There, Rider” she evokes a number of mainstream C&W singers. But she’s not copying anyone. As I’ve mentioned, she’s covering these artists through the lens of a jazz singer, someone who knows how to take a jazz piano trio straight into new, unfamiliar neighborhood.
Because Hollingsworth dominates so much of the surface of Ish, especially because she also composes and arranges, it’s easy to think of Mad Love as a solo work. You could argue that Hollingsworth’s keyboards and her voice are the essence of Ish, but that would be ignoring Follis and Captein and how they actually provide the bridge into all these adventures. Without these two constantly gripping onto the jazz basics, Ish wouldn’t be as intriguing. But if you enjoy Mad Love because of the pure talent of Kathleen Hollingsworth, I’ll forgive you. She’s someone to watch.