Now celebrating 10 years since the release of her acclaimed debut album Dreams of Tomorrow, multi-faceted Estonian vocalist and songwriter Sofia Rubina will always be a glorious representative of her country’s century-plus jazz history. Still, in many ways, she’s also a highly accomplished, multi-cultural musical citizen of the world, citing Ella Fitzgerald, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves as core influences, studying with Danilo Perez at Berklee Global Jazz Institute and performing in NYC and, among many other countries, Panama, Italy, Spain, UK, Germany, Russia, China and Lithuania.
Her fourth album, the boldly titled I Am Soul, showcases the expansive emotional range of her voice, her brash wit, lyrical romanticism and impeccable phrasing in a wide range of stylistic settings reflecting a variety of intriguing inspirations. Though she’s an excellent songwriter in her own right and includes six compelling originals, listeners new to Rubina’s multitude of musical charms may gravitate first to her gorgeous, intimate take on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and her fascinating twists on classics by George Duke (the passionate, easy grooving R&B ballad “Someday”) and Chick Corea (a bustling, wildly grooving and adventurously scat fired “Open Your Eyes You Can Fly.”
Yet perhaps the most intriguing re-interpretation is “Surgery,” a gospel tune originated by L. Spenser Smith and Testament that begins in staid classical mode with a string quartet before funking its way to a church full of dynamic vocal textures. Listeners intrigued by her Baltic background and how she manifests that need look no further than the rhythmically and vocally intoxicating “Taim.” Singing in Estonian and going on surreal wordless runs later in the track, Rubina reflects on the cycle of life, death, rebirth and the finite with a fiery passion we can feel even as cultural outsiders.
Thematically, one of the ongoing trends of Rubina’s originals is unbridled optimism, which is not always easy to come by in a complicated world. All of which make a peppy, dreamer soul-stirrer like “Great Life,” the joyfully polyrhythmic and ultra-jazzy celebration of life described in “Morning Etude” and the life and self-affirming adult contemporary gem “Stay True” the most essential parts of this incredible recording.