Yves Jean's pretty hard to miss in Pittsburgh's music scene -- you can't walk into just any rock bar around here and see a 6-foot-5 Haitian-American who combines mainstream pop-rock vocals and hooks with his rippling bass and African and Caribbean rhythms. Though you might find Yves himself working the door at Shady Grove -- one of his four jobs, he jokes -- and if you do, it's pronounced "Eve."
The workload is a means to two ends: First, to finance the professional sheen on his new record, for Love and Desperation, and, second, to keep him busy and upbeat in the face of some bleaker times.
Jean got started in Pittsburgh's music scene in the late 1990s, winning the 1999 Graffiti Rock Challenge with the Yves Jean Band, "a nine-piece jam band, basically," he says. "It was a world-beat, eclectic fusiony kind of stuff with great musicians." When the lineup proved too cumbersome for touring, Jean pared it back to a four-piece, and for 2004's Rise Above Your Surroundings, the songs became more concise and indie-rock-oriented. After a year-and-a-half of touring, Jean was primed for another go at the studio when things started to fall apart: He lost his mother, Georgette Jean, who had raised him alone in New York City, to cancer. With his only real family gone, he soon realized, "I'm alone in this motherfucker."
The process of grieving and finding new joys informs for Love and Desperation, giving it more weight and urgency than what he'd produced before. "After about eight months after my mom died, I was like 'OK, this is really all me. I need it to be done the right way,'" says Jean.
Instead of working with his old band, Jean got in touch with producer Ken Lewis and his assistant Cooper Henderson, industry pros located in New York, and began a collaborative effort that took place almost entirely through the ether.
"It was all through a cell phone and a laptop -- never met these guys!" Jean laughs. After several months of sending tracks back and forth over the Internet, "we finally had our meeting, and we sat down and had lunch -- they were like, 'Hi, Yves!' It was this relationship for nine months, and we would talk to each other every day."
Making music this way is a tradeoff: You gain access to great musicians and producers, but you lose the physical proximity that can mean so much. "You have to be very clear, and you have to have a vision, and you have to lay it out," Jean says. "Sometimes it's just dead on, like, 'Wow, you just read my mind.' Or like, 'Uh ... not sure.'" In addition to the studio musicians and backing vocalists, several locals also appear: WYEP favorite Jon Check, keyboardist Kent English and drummer David Hall.
The resulting album is polished to a high gloss, and continues Jean's interest in combining exotic grooves with pop, rock and soul -- a sound sometimes reminiscent of Paul Simon, as well as Dave Matthews and Santana's collaborations with Rob Thomas. The goal, Jean says, is to make music that feels universal without taking away its character and his own, personal lyrics.
"I think people who are into hip-hop music and R&B will dig the beats that I have, the rhythms I've used; anyone who's into ethnic music will dig that stuff; anyone who likes pop-rockish, I guess will dig my choruses, 'cause I'm direct and to the point." He adds, "I'm from Haiti, so that's gonna naturally come out in my music."
Just at this moment, as Jean and I discussed his music in a café, a song came on the stereo, in which he pointed out the Haitian styles zouk and kompa. The same off-beat dance rhythm kicks off his album's first song, "Find the Words." While many of the songs concern lost love, others are carpe diem exhortations -- "Happy," "Smile For Me," "Hold On" -- whose titles pretty much say it all.
But it's the darker, paranoid grooves of "We Know Who You Are" and "Stand Alone" that seem most satisfying. Over the Latin pulse of "Stand Alone," Jean sings: "These are the ways of our times / No one even cares / You extend your hand to be helped / But the undertow will drag you below." That's pretty different from the song two tracks later, which urges the listener to "do what makes you happy."
"If you're looking at the album as a person, we're not always the same person all the time," Jean says. "There's just different sides of us." And those different sides, for Jean, anyway, seem to arise from the collision of grief and groove.
"It's just all about 'God, life sucks.' But dance, though -- dance!"
Yves Jean CD release 8 p.m. Fri., Feb. 8 (doors at 7 p.m.). Diesel, 1601 E. Carson St., South Side. $10. 412-431-8800 or www.dieselpgh.com
Listening party: 9 p.m. Thu., Feb. 7. Shady Grove, 5500 Walnut St., Shadyside. Free. 412-697-0909