In 2016, upon the invitation of her fan, friend and mentor Cassandra Wilson, multi-faceted Slovakian vocalist and songwriter Hanka G moved to NYC, where she promptly established herself as a popular force on the city’s jazz scene. Yet with a background that includes an early passion for Motown and a heart for sharing the joyful folk songs of her home culture, she transcends any sort of limitations that the designation “jazz sings” might put on her.
Which is exactly the point behind Universal Ancestry, her long awaited, provocatively titled U.S. debut album that’s delightfully and by design all over the stylistic map. Featuring a batch of top Big Apple musicians, including Grammy winning pianist/organist Shedrick Mitchell, it’s more than simply a showcase of her range and adaptability within all the genres she loves (jazz, pop, R&B, gospel, folk).
As its title hints at, Hanka uses this array of songs to share her vision of what might happen if all the racial and superficial differences that divide people were no longer an issue. One of the most prominent element is her love of pop/soul music, expressed powerfully with imaginative arrangements of Whitney Houston’s “All the Man That I Need,” Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” and Donny Hathaway’s iconic personal and universal liberation song “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”
She crosses R&B/jazz borders with caressing yet powerful renditions of “In Search of My Heart” (originally a duet by McCoy Tyner and Phyllis Hyman) and a seductive yet whimsical twist on Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” – then delves full on into jazz with a sassy, hard swinging “Them There Eyes” and dips her toes into some mighty gospel waters on the gently persuasive “Be Grateful.”
As incredible as it is on so many levels, Universal Ancestry would merely be a high level jazz/R&B project without the handful of Slovak folk songs (“Dance Dance,” “I’m Such a Pretty Girl”) she translates effortlessly into her current jazz context.
Completing the truly immersive autobiographical romp through Hanka’s musical life, she closes the set with the gentle ballad (sung in Slovak and English) “Bird Has Started Singing,” which begins with the breathy exotic sounds of the fujara, a Slovakian flute played by Veronika Vitazkova. Overall, when you listen to this breathtaking album, you’ll be more than grateful this bird started to sing! .