Tomás Doncker Band - Power of the Trinity...A Slight Return
Release Date: August 10, 2013
Record Label: The True Groove Soul Label
When “Brooklyn2Eithiopa” breaks the silence on Power of the Trinity...A Slight Return—a new EP from the Tomás Doncker Band—it does so with immense promise, hip hop-esque vocal samples and pounding beats carrying it along. When a thunderous horn arrangement crashes through the walls and a groovy synth loop begins to punctuate the scenario, however, it feels like the song could easily descend into cheesy 1990s R&B territory. Then Tomás Doncker starts singing and everything gets turned on its head.
I’m not going to mince words here, Power of the Trinity...A Slight Return is the kind of record that could easily fall flat without the right frontman. You get a guy with too little conviction, and the record’s deep, race-related message (the album is a “meditation on the legacy of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie,” with a “global soul” mission of combining people from all different cultures with one unified voice) would be impossible to sell. You get a guy whose voice is too smooth, and the whole thing would sound fake, processed, and calculated. Even a singer normally great at delivering heavy “message” music would struggle with songs like the six featured here, thanks to the shape-shifting, tribal-like improv feel of the whole thing.
From start to finish, Power of the Trinity...A Slight Return sounds like a bizarre collision between an academic world music conference, a classic bluesman’s live record (James Brown’s Live at the Apollo comes to mind on several occasions), and a concert by the Roots, somewhere between their hip hop stylings and the soulful records they’ve recorded in recent years with guys like John Legend and Elvis Costello. That’s a lot of musical territory to cover, and while throwing all of those works in a blender results in a very interesting amalgamation on paper, it could easily grow dull and directionless without the right bandleader overseeing the operation.
Luckily, Tomás Doncker is absolutely the right bandleader for a project like this one. His voice is versatile and fluid, flitting from moments of smooth bluesy lilt (“Happy”) to full-blown, force of nature breakdowns. His instrument is raspy and whiskey-drenched when it needs to be (the funky release of “Peace”) and worshipful and sober a moment later. He dials his delivery back to breathy folk-pop on “Habesha Girl,” a legitimately infectious pop song that seems to play with the radio tropes of half a dozen different cultures. And when he lets out a reckless wail on the dynamic protest song that is “We Need Justice,” he sounds unhinged, like one of the characters from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. It’s no surprise that Doncker has been a staple of the New York City music scene for more than two decades.
But while the frontman is terrific, there’s a lot going on here, and not all of it centers on Doncker. This record is a truly collaborative project, with plentiful background singers and guest artists—both male and female, domestic and foreign—filling out the free-form song structures throughout. Including Doncker, there are 11 people in the “Tomás Doncker Band.” Every song has at least one guest feature, and some of them have as many as four. This is as communal a record as has been made in 2013, and it’s a brilliant reminder that anyone and everyone can participate in musical creation, whether they are a tried-and-true virtuoso—whoever is soloing electric guitar over the explosive album closer, “Abet Gurage”—or just someone who can improvise a few notes here and there—the questionably tuned saxophone solo at the climax of “Peace,” which crescendos and climbs a jazzy scale until it is cracking and fracking for nearly five straight seconds.
The communal nature of Power of the Trinity...A Slight Return is what keeps it feeling so electric and alive, but the amount of world music influence here is fascinating, especially if you’ve had much exposure to music outside of the western sphere before. In fact, Doncker explores so many different cultural niches on this record that it’s a bit remarkable how much it all comes together in the end. Power of the Trinity...A Slight Return feels completely cohesive, like it could be one song, but not because everything sounds the same. Instead, Power of the Trinity feels unified because the energy and the dynamic nature of the songs makes you feel like you are listening to one continuous flow of musical thought. It’s not a record you can listen to over and over again, and I actually ended up wishing that Doncker had taken even more risks—a hip hop verse here perhaps, or a few complete breaks with tonality there—but for a record that aims so completely to be a melting pot of musical styles (from Brooklyn to Ethiopia, as the opening track states) Power of the Trinity...A Slight Return is a rousing success.