The ubiquitous session man breaks free. If you like Randy Newman, read on.

Label: Merryland Records
Time: 10 tracks / 42 mins

I mentioned in my review of the Mark Heard tribute curated by this artist that Madeira is a wonderfully dependable studio musician (he – along with key players here – is a core part of Emmylou Harris’s backing band), but that he can lack the fire of creativity that sets music alight.

So when this solo album appeared unexpectedly through the post, I was hardly ecstatic.

However, session musicians can come alive afresh in their own work, and there is real heart in this release, where he eschews his normal Americana for some free-wheeling jazz. Opener “Wicked Job” sprints out of the speakers and features a thoroughly delightful piano break.

Madeira strips things back to just himself on piano, assisted by Brian Owlings on drums and some impressive upright bass from Chris Donahue. Occasionally, he brings in regular Nashville colleagues for a specific job.

The result is a fresh, spacious and definitely American release, which often forces you to think of Randy Newman. It’s the vocal phrasing and piano playing that mainly do it.

Essentially, this is a highly autobiographical story of growing up in providence, Rhode Island, and being attracted to the South by its music (meeting guitarist Phil Keaggy drew him into Nashville, and Madeira has probably played on over one hundred releases reviewed on this site).

Equally adept at expressing himself though lyrical precision and instrumental eloquence, Madeira begins by describing his soul-destroying store job in a store as, “A dreamer’s graveyard on a dead-end road,” and his determination to follow his dream:
“Life’s a wicked job, but someone’s gotta do it
 When it gets rock hard, gotta chisel through it.”

There’s a smart Mark Twain reference when he names the second track “A Rhode Island Yankee on Jefferson Davis Court” to illustrate the disconnect between his old and new homes.

The highlight for me is the rollicking “Rich Man’s Town,” with its piano riff and horns backing that are surely a deliberate nod to Steely Dan.

The album ends by going back in time with the strings-aided "Gothenburg." It is a song about his maternal grandparents’ Swedish roots, and the lines, “Italian, Irish, Portuguese - not a word they understood / The melting pot, America, was your grandma’s neighborhood” may be a pointed reminder that most of the nation has immigrant roots at a time when the Christian tradition of hospitality is under threat.

Madeira is a Grammy-winner with a powerful CV, but this is personal. If the places he sings of are hard to identify with, the overall theme of pursuing your dreams, and the love song to his wife, are easier to connect with.

The bottom line: if you like the idea of a jazzy Randy Newman, decorated with some Allen Toussaint flourishes, this should appeal.

Derek Walker