Rising Jelani Sei Melds Body And Mind With Elements Of Soul, Hip-Hop, Jazz

On a sunny, cold afternoon, four members of Hartford-NYC band Jelani Sei — vocalist Kayana Guity, bassist Evan Lawrence, and guitarists Sam Smith and Scott White — gathered at the base of Talcott Mountain in Simsbury.

For what they were about to do — ascend to the cliffs above, to shoot a music video segment for a track called “Samson” — the musicians were underdressed.

“The whole idea of the music video is that we’re all in our separate places, going about our days by ourselves,” says Smith, a 22-year-old Redding native. “There’s a little bit of a loneliness factor to it, too, but we’re also just doing our own thing.”

“Samsung,” a song that might be about rebellion (“raise our underaged glass full / to us! we’re making it through”) or lust (“something about the way that you kiss me”) or privilege (“known folks keep it shrouded / hidden midst looks for the crowded”), or none of those things, develops slowly, broadening from acoustic to electric textures, breaking out finally into a double-time stride.

“Musically, this is where the song gets really tight, and it’s grooving, it’s going fast,” Smith says. “It’s kind of a sense of coming together.”

Being in the mountains is “kind of a symbol of that.”

“Samsung” (alternate titles: “Sam’s Song,” “Samson” on Spotify), appears on “LVNDR TWN,” a recent six-track EP, whose reception — since its release in September, it has been streamed thousands of times, according to the band — is taking Jelani Sei to newer, better places.

In the spring, Jelani Sei will tour with Sorority Noise (another band with Hartford roots), starting at the end of March in Dallas, before winding up on the East Coast. The bands play the Ballroom at the Outer Space in Hamden on April 3, beginning at 8 p.m.

Cameron Boucher, who fronts Sorority Noise, graduated from Hartt when the four musicians were freshmen.

“Some of us have kept in contact with him,” Smith says. “He’s helping us out.”

Jelani Sei’s sound — you’ll hear elements of jazz, R&B, soul, funk, hip-hop and indie rock — belongs equally to the body and the mind.

Chords (usually extended) fall together into unexpected successions. Grooves — listen to “Queens,” for example — hiccup and sputter, seemingly in service to lyrics and melodies.

Guity and Lawrence do harmony vocals really well. Smith and Scott know how to dart and weave and never overwhelm; for a two-guitar band, Jelani Sei is capable of surprising dynamic shifts, sometimes within a single four-minute song.

Still, even to the band members, “LVNDR TWN” feels a bit like a blueprint for what’s to come, a primer for a future full-length release. It sets a high bar.

“It definitely opens the door to an album,” White says. “It’s a good platform to the next level where we all want to be.”

“It’s, like, 45 percent representative of who we hope to be,” Lawrence says.

(Guity protests, and Lawrence amends his figure: “OK, maybe 53 percent.”)

Lawrence, 21, who is from Jamaica, Queens, started Jelani Sei as a solo project in 2014, when he was a first-year student at the Hartt School. (He’s now at SUNY Purchase, studying jazz performance.)

“I met Connecticut people, and I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” Lawrence says.

The band ballooned into a septet, with a saxophone player and keyboardist, before shrinking back down.

(Drummer Enayi Tamakloe, who plays on “LVNDR TWN,” a previous EP called “Kaaria” (2016) and several singles, is a recent departure; live, Martine Wade and Jaylen Petinuad currently alternate as subs.)

Historically, Lawrence did all of the writing, but that’s changing. “In the past year and a half, everybody’s been writing more of their own parts,” he says.

Guity, a 21-year-old singer from Boston, Mass. (she’s now in NYC) who briefly attended Hartt, writes a lot of the lyrics, or “I’ll give her my sh*tty lyrics and she’ll fix them,” Lawrence says.

“We’re definitely pushing ourselves to use different instruments to throw ourselves into different positions,” Smith says, “to play different things, whether it’s playing keyboards or somebody’s playing bass on a song or using a drum machine.”

At Hartt, Smith studies music management, with an emphasis on jazz studies (he’ll graduate after the fall 2018 semester). White, 22, who grew up in Fairfield, is in his final year of studies in music production (also with a jazz emphasis).

For now, rehearsals take place at SUNY Purchase or in the Hartford area. The distance, Smith says, is irritating but worthwhile.

“It’s a big sacrifice of time, but I feel like, if you just look at everything we’ve done in the past three years, it’s becoming a bigger responsibility,” Smith says. “We’re getting more opportunities out of it. It really is a case of putting the work in and getting something out of it.”

Jelani Sei recorded the drums and some of the guitars on “LVNDR TWN” in Hartford. They additionally worked on the EP in Purchase, in Queens and in Philadelphia.

When everyone’s done with school, Jelani Sei could move to New York or Philadelphia, which is “pretty cheap compared to New York,” Smith says.

For now, Guity says, the biggest relief is just having the EP out and into the world. She credits manager Max Ship for pushing them.

“We have mad deadlines, and we just never meet them,” Guity says. “We just kept pushing it back, pushing it back, pushing it back. When Max got involved, it was a big relief to just get it out and start some new sh*t.”

JELANI SEI performs at Sunnyvale in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 23, with T-Rextasy, Baby and Zenizen. Tickets are $10 to $12. The band performs at the Ballroom at the Outer Space in Hamden on April 3 at 7:30 p.m, with Sorority Noise and Remo Drive. Tickets are $16 to $20. manicpresents.com

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