Midon's debut CD captures his own state of being

Music

August 18, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

There's a stunning purity in his sound, an inspired, jazzlike complexity in his approach. The music -- often melodious, sometimes pretty -- is always open and free. Raul Midon (that's mee-DON), a blind singer-songwriter-musician of black and Argentinian descent, has released one of the year's most brilliant albums: State of Mind, his major-label debut.

Rippling with elements of classical, jazz, flamenco and '70s soul, the CD features little more than Midon's vocals and guitar throughout. But with his dynamic range (the singer does a dead-on imitation of a trumpet) and complicated, percussive technique on the acoustic guitar, the artist easily creates the illusion that he's backed by a full band.

"It's kinda what I do," says Midon, who's calling from a tour stop in Boulder, Colo. He opens for Joan Armatrading at Rams Head Live Wednesday night. "When I moved to New York, not having a band was an economical thing. It's so hard to pull a band together. ... When people see what I'm doing live and hear what's on the record, it's not gonna be two different things."

Though State of Mind, overseen by legendary producer Arif Mardin and his son Joe, boasts a fluid, vibrant live feel, the record was meticulously crafted, Midon says. He multitracked his vocals and instrumentation. Bass and percussion were added to flesh out a few songs. Singer-songwriter Jason Mraz sings with the artist on the sprightly "Keep on Hoping." Grammy-winning soul singer Lisa Fischer shadows Midon on the romantic "Mystery Girl." But the guest with whom Midon was especially eager to collaborate was Stevie Wonder, one of his musical heroes. The Motown legend blows a reflective harmonica solo on "Expressions of Love."

Comparisons to Wonder and Latin legend Jose Feliciano are inevitable. Like those veteran musicians, Midon, extraordinarily talented with an innate sense of melody and soulfulness, has been blind since birth. Though not as lyrically gifted as Wonder (few are), the Manhattan-based artist shows promise as his songs smartly delve into matters of the heart and spirit. Vocally, Midon is as versatile as Feliciano but has more in common with his other musical hero: Donny Hathaway. At the core of the singer's expansive tenor is a rich mahogany tone reminiscent of Hathaway's. It's a smoky, gospel-suffused delivery that influenced Wonder, George Benson and numerous others. The main reason Midon wanted to work with Mardin was that the producer had worked on the late soul star's revered '70s albums.

"I wanted to work with Arif or Quincy Jones," he says. "I wanted to work with someone with a jazz background who didn't want to take out who I was musically."

The performer's life story is as uplifting as any of the tunes on State of Mind. Born in the rural town of Embudo, N.M., Midon and his identical twin brother Marco were delivered six weeks premature and then placed in an incubator that had too much oxygen. Raul's retinas were destroyed, and his brother had limited vision in one eye until he was 16. The twins' mother, who was black, died of an aneurysm when they were 4. So the two were raised by their maternal grandmother and Argentinian father, a former professional dancer.

"Me being blind, I was told I couldn't do this, couldn't do that," Midon says. "In my life, I find a way to do what I want to do. Having a lot of people around that support that, the positive, there's nothing you can't do."

Midon started playing the guitar at age 6 and steadily gravitated toward music and the arts while his brother excelled in math and science. (Marco is now an engineer for NASA.) After graduating from the University of Miami, Midon established himself on the local Latin music scene as a session singer and guitarist.

He moved to New York City in 2002 and began playing small clubs. It was in the Big Apple where Midon folded more flamenco touches into his acoustic soul-jazz mix. His shows at joints like Arthur's and Joe's Pub created a strong buzz around the city. Eventually, Midon caught the attention of Mardin, whose most recent work includes the madly successful albums of Norah Jones. The producer quickly took Midon to Manhattan / EMI Records, the company that signed him on the spot.

"What we've done on State of Mind is more me," Midon says. "I appreciate that Arif was secure enough to say, 'Let's do this. No strings. Not a lot of production.' I really appreciate that. The best chance at being an artist is to just be you."

See Raul Midon at Rams Head Live, 20 Market St., Wednesday night at 8. Tickets are $35-$50. For more information, call 410-244-1131 or visit www.ramsheadlive.com. Also see Midon at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Va., 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28. Tickets are $17.50 and are available at Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

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