There’s a moment in “From Orbit,” the title track from Emanuel Wynter’s new live album, where the vocalist/violinist and his ace band slip gravity’s grasp — and celebrate that feeling. Nimble bass, pile-driving drums and trilling keyboards trace a cross-stitch groove, creating a space for Wynter’s playful and romantic vocals to soar.
“Weightless infatuation/ While we’re dancing on Saturn’s rings/ Won’t take for granted the times we made/ Laid it all down by Jupiter again…”
Is Wynter remembering and cherishing a brief affair and casting his tale among a fanciful star field? The imagery may be cosmic, but the conviction in Wynter’s fine grained, melodic voice is down to earth.
“I’m free falling from orbit/ Streaking through the night sky/ I’m on my way home, back home … It ain’t easy coming down…”
“[It’s] a song about feeling very happy …[with] emotional euphoria ,” Wynter tells Queen City Nerve. “Having that moment and coming down from it, but still being happy, knowing that it’s coming again.”
On From Orbit, Wynter’s sophomore album that drops Oct. 20, his ebullient yet grounded songs embrace a broad emotional spectrum. Love, loss, nostalgia and imagination all jostle for a fleeting yet joyous moment in the spotlight. The music that acts as jewelers’ settings for these gemstone melodies is similarly diverse yet coherent.
One moment Curt Keys’ shimmering keyboards are ethereal, the next they are grounded yet rolling gospel organ. Victor Payton-Webber’s bass growls and prowls like a big cat before traipsing sprightly around the beat. Justin Allen’s elastic drumming ranges from jazzy hissing hi-hats to a full on hard-rock stomp.
Speaking of rock, Nero Tindal IV’s guitar can kick back with shimmering harp-like glissandos before unleashing coruscating runs that streak crackling contrails of feedback. Wynter’s violin — which has enlivened projects by 9daytrip, Sticks & Stones and other local bands — harkens to Stéphane Grappelli’s gypsy-jazz bowing and Vassar Clements’ rapid-fire bluegrass fiddling.
His playing hits an outer edge as well, unleashing corkscrewing bagpipe skirls and screech owl screams.
“I say that my music is R&B,” Wynter says. “I mean, it isn’t and it is. There are definitely rock influences in my sound. [It’s the] intersection between rock and soul.”
Wynter’s vocals provide much of that soul. They are inviting and upbeat yet they contain a soupcon of grit, an underlying gravitas that brings the band’s jazzy/psychedelic/shoegaze/R&B explorations down to earth. For all of Wynter’s adventurous excursions, home seems to be the final destination for “From Orbit.”
One of the most powerful emotions expressed by the song is the flood of feelings unleashed by a homecoming. Perhaps that’s why the album was recorded live at The Evening Muse, which has been a kind of professional home for Wynter.
“I love the Evening Muse,” says Wynter, who debuted his first release, “Cosmos,” at the iconic NoDa club. “It’s the first place I ever did a full band show. I wanted it to be the place where I recorded my first live album.”
To reference an album by singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, with From Orbit, Emanuel Wynter is bringing it all back home. He performs at Middle C Jazz on Oct. 19, sharing a bill with the Harvey Cummings Project as part of the newly returned Confluence Music Festival and Convention.
Songs to learn and sing
Growing up in New York, Emanuel Wynter had a lot of opportunities to encounter music, yet credits his mother, Seranne, for imbuing him with a love of music.
“She did a really good job of exposing me to things,” he says. “We would see different productions of concerts at the Lincoln Center. I saw Wynton Marsalis there.”
Despite marquee names like Marsalis, Wynter says he was inspired to pick up a violin after seeing his cousin perform with the instrument at a recital. At the age of 6, Wynter enrolled in a violin class at Alexander Robinson School on the Upper West Side. When he changed schools to be closer to his home in the Bronx, Wynter continued his training with private lessons.
In 2007, Wynter’s family moved to Charlotte. Despite the culture shock involved with experiencing a scarcity of subways and seeing cows grazing from the window of his school bus, Wynter gradually acclimated to life in the Queen City. One bright spot was JazzArts Charlotte and its JazzArts Academy, currently at the VAPA Center in Uptown.
When he was in first grade in New York, Wynter was exposed to the Suzuki method. Created by Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki, the Suzuki method creates an environment for learning music that is patterned after the linguistic environment of acquiring a language. Using listening, imitation, and repetition, the method posits that most people can learn to play an instrument as if it were their native tongue.
Wynter says he enjoyed the Suzuki method with its emphasis on ear training. That training came in handy when Wynter ventured beyond classical music in high school and started listening to and playing contemporary styles like blues, rock and jazz.
“JazzArts … opened my eyes to playing things that aren’t written,” Wynter says. “Whether you’re improvising [or] coming up with your own melodies, they really laid it out for me. It was an awesome program.”
Learning ensemble playing was also a big benefit from studying at JazzArts, Wynter says. He credits the program with teaching him what he calls “sonic literature.”
“If you think of music like literature … you get vocabulary from it,” Wynter says.
For instance, by studying the work of jazz violinist Regina Carter, Wynter says he learned musical grammar — a player’s respective note choices, inflection and playing.
“That can inform me as a string player [about] my options, that maybe I haven’t thought about before listening to her,” Wynter says.
Songwriting was sparked gradually for Wynter, first by writing verses for fun when he was in high school. After that, he attended UNC Greensboro to study interior architecture. In college, Wynter hung out with a group of friends who would freestyle regularly.
“We used to share poetry with each other,” Wynter remembers. “It helped me develop my pen, but I wasn’t sharing.”
Even though school was in Greensboro, Wynter developed his live performance chops playing downstate in Charlotte. Soon he started getting gigs in the Queen City, and he regularly attended open mics, particularly at The Evening Muse.
This led to Wynter becoming a hired gun, playing with bands like All of a Kind, where he met bassist All Pat Hulsey and late drummer Antonio “Animal” Brown. When Hulsey decamped for Sticks & Stones and Brown joined 9daytrip, Wynter started playing with those two bands.
In December 2016, Wynter dropped out of college and started doing music full-time. By 2017, he started singing for 9daytrip, gradually gaining confidence in his vocal abilities.
“I didn’t write ‘Cosmos’ until September in 2017,” Wynter says. “That was the first song I had written with the intention of putting it out.”
It wasn’t until the summer of 2018, however, that Wynter played the song live for the first time at The Evening Muse.
A songwriter turns to his muse
With crystalline jazz guitar, a warmly embracing funk groove and Wynter’s smooth neo-soul vocals, “Cosmos” is a limpid and swaying slow dance that charts a course for the violinist and songwriter’s subsequent career: “In the cosmos, we’re dancing/ In harmony/ I’ll take no steps for granted/ But all the time I need…”
“From the moment I wrote ‘Cosmos’ I wanted to get a band together so I can play this stuff live,” Wynter says. Soon he had written enough material to put out a debut album. “I was getting some opportunities to play [the songs] solo, but I really wanted to get a band together,” Wynter recalls.
His first full band show came in July 2019 at The Evening Muse. In February 2020, Wynter and his band released These Past Two Years. The romantic yet introspective collection of eight songs included “Cosmos” as well as the sunny and sashaying “Iced Coffee,” one of the friendliest and most vulnerable come-ons ever recorded.
“Just tryna shake this mood I’m in/ I just need a little help, baby/ Turn it all around just with a grin/ I like caramel in my iced coffee…”
There was no single working method for writing the album’s material, Wynter says. For instance, “Iced Coffee” began as an earworm melody that Wynter couldn’t get out of his head.
“I don’t really have one firm process,” Wynter says. “[Each song] is different, and I think it’s exciting because it’s not uniform, it’s not the same every time.”
In addition to romantic love, an overriding theme throughout the album is nostalgia. It imbues the front-porch swing of “Last Year’s Avenue” and its front and center in the genre jumping soul jazz of “These Walls.”
“In the [realm of] nostalgia there is wanting to go back, but there is also the understanding [that] you have to move forward,” Wynter says.
In that regard, From Orbit, is all about moving ahead. At the beginning of 2022, it had been two years since Wynter had put out any new music, and he was writing songs for a completely different studio project. To get the new songs on their feet, Wynter started playing them with his band, which had evolved into its current lineup of guitarist Nero Tindal IV, keyboardist Curt Keys, bassist Victor Payton-Webber and drummer Justin Allen.
“I felt what we were doing live was really cool; the band was hitting its stride,” Wynter says. “All those guys know each other. They’ve all played with each other outside of playing with me, so there’s chemistry between them.”
Wynter realized that he was excited for people to see and hear the band live. The realization encouraged Wynter to draw inspiration from the live albums he loved so well, John Mayer’s Live at the Nokia Theater and John Legend’s Live at S.O.B.’s from back when he still went by John Stephens.
“I [have] a deep admiration for the magic that’s in live albums when the band gets together and plays in front of people,” Wynter says. “There’s energy there that is incredible and it can’t be replicated in the studio.”
Wynter also felt he had grown as an artist, singer and player — and he wanted to showcase that. As much as Wynter was proud of his old material, he wanted to show people that he was going somewhere, and not trapped in a past defined by “Cosmos.”
From Orbit showcases 10 tracks, eight of which are new originals, recorded live on Feb. 9, 2023. Unlike some live albums, which collect tracks from several shows, the album is a document of one gig on a particular winter’s evening at The Muse.
“The technical logistics of getting things recorded, it’s easier to do it all at one place,” Wynter says.”So, we had a few rehearsals to get everything together, and it ended up being a really beautiful night.”
Not even the fan who accosted Wynter after he got off the stage because the band hadn’t played “Iced Coffee” could break the evening’s ethereal spell.
Given the album’s focus on all new original material, Wynter’s fans may be confused that the band chose to record two covers as part of the set.
“The cover songs that we played — I wanted them to fit. I wanted them to make sense,” Wynter says.
A cover of contemporary blues-rock guitarist Gary Clark Jr.’s “You Saved Me” fits because Clark is one of Wynter’s favorite artists.
“[Clark] has this big, heavy and aggressive blues-rock sound, but he also has strong hip-hop and soul influences in his music,” Wynter says.
As he describes Clark’s sound and its emotional influence on the listener, it echoes what many say about Wynter’s own sound. “It’s like floating through outer space. It’s rock, it’s soulful, and gorgeous.”
Perhaps the most surprising cover is an ethereal yet hard-rocking take on MGMT’s “Electric Feel.” Wynter’s version starts softly like a field recording. Payton-Webber’s pulsing bass, Allen’s clicking and hissing percussion and plucked pizzicato strings gradually grow in volume.
As Wynter’s emotive, wistful vocals tumble out, you feel he’s singing from the heart. Then, Keys’ keyboards flutter and hover like a UFO as Tindal’s spidery streamers of guitar streak across the soundscape.
As chugging bass charges into the fray, its clear this version rocks hard, with an unhinged pinwheeling electric guitar ripping through spectral keyboard washes at warp speed.
“The way that we do ‘Electric Feel’ is cool and unique,” Wynter says. “It simmers and it’s spacey and psychedelic. Then it gets big and high energy.”
It’s a testament to Wynter and his band that they can take on such a popular and iconic song and make it their own. Wynter hopes that listeners to From Orbit come away with a sense that life is fleeting, and we all should strive to live in the moment. He feels that the album is no less introspective than These Past Two Years — with one distinct difference.
“The big thing people will notice is that I’m coming into myself,” Wynter says. “I think I’m better able to get across what I want to get across. I know what I want to sound like, and I’m better able to get that sound. As far as the Emanuel Wynter dreamy references [to] astronomy, they’re still in there, but there’s also a lot more energy.”
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