Dawn Richard is a showstopping contradiction. The New Orleans-born artist has made a nearly two-decade career of creating music that leaves an impact while being fluid enough to never risk being pinned down. She first made her name as a member of pop group Danity Kane before striking an even more unpredictable path as a solo artist, exploring everything from art-pop futurism on 2016’s Redemption to the rhythms and traditions of her home city on 2019’s New Breed and 2021’s Second Line. She’s collaborated with footwork producer Machinedrum and appeared on records by Dirty Projectors, and in 2018 connected with bassist and composer Spencer Zahn on “Cyanotype,” a subdued piece of minimalist jazz-pop that found Richard in the company of sounds and textures that hadn’t been featured on any of her own records, but weren’t necessarily out of the question either.
“Cyanotype” began something special. While at the time that song might have slipped under the radar, it opened up a new collaborative project between Richard and Zahn, whose own career featuring collaborations with Half Waif and Darkside’s Dave Harrington has proven every bit as fascinating and multifaceted. The duo’s first collaborative full-length effort, Pigments, is a single continuous piece of music that comprises 11 separate movements rather than songs per se. This isn’t a pop record so much as a delicate piece of conceptual composition, rooted in meditative ECM-style jazz and carrying more in common with last year’s Pharoah Sanders/Floating Points collaboration Promises than a set of songs structurally bound by verses, choruses and bridges. As such, it’s intended to flow continuously, a listening experience that requires patience, perhaps, but not necessarily that much of your time at a fairly brief 36 minutes.
Pigments is also uniformly gorgeous. There’s a sense of narrative arc to the manner in which these 11 tracks play out, if not necessarily a story in the same way that a musical or an opera would, each track named for a different hue in an overarching theme of learning to love your own skin. Richard’s presence is powerful, but it’s only occasionally accompanied by the club-friendly rhythms that she’d previously employed so well, instead her voice wrapped in orchestrations of saxophone, clarinet, strings and synth. It’s a fragile, vulnerable set of pieces and movements made for patient, close listening both for the subtle, lush details of the orchestration as well as Richard’s own subtly moving lyrics—declarations like “You’re the faith I believe in/Brown skin” on “Vantablack,” or “I can’t look myself in the mirror/Only see reflections of what I-, reflections of what I used to be.” These are songs of self-love and quiet struggle alike, unusually introverted and beautifully delicate moments that frequently showcase Richard in ways we’ve never quite heard her before.
While there are climactic moments throughout the graceful progression of Pigments, “Crimson” is the rare piece that can be broken free as a proper song, self-contained and independently breathtaking apart from the whole. This is not a knock on the other 10 tracks, but rather a major endorsement of the song itself, a moment still delicate but reaching for something bigger in the process. It’s here where Richard and Spencer most explicitly suggest performances fit for symphony halls as much as ornate theaters. Pop music isn’t absent from the equation on Pigments, but it’s only part of it—one hue in an even broader and subtly changing palette.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.