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From the Inside Out

Give the Singers Some!

By Published: February 17, 2007
God sent his Singers upon earth
With songs of sadness and of mirth,
That they might touch the hearts of men
And bring them back to heaven again.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Singers


Ruth Naomi Floyd
Root to the Fruit
Contour
2006

Along with her sidework with instrumentalists Charles Fambrough, Uri Caine and other jazzmen of note, composer/vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd gives voice to her own muse through her own label, Contour Records. Her fifth release continues her longstanding collaboration with pianist James Weidman, known for his accompaniment of vocalists Abbey Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson, and also features flutist James Newton, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and rhythm section aces Reggie Washington (bass) and Ralph Peterson (drums).

Root to the Fruit endeavors to illuminate the intersection at which meet jazz, its musical ancestry, and African-American Christian faith. There's a surprising amount of musical precedent for this ambition, and Floyd's eclectic program takes full advantage of it. She renders in gospel, jazz and blues hues such traditional spirituals as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and "Oh, Freedom, on which she pins her deeply felt vocal to a colorful tapestry of expressive yet exploratory, "free-jazz" blowing by the ensemble. Weidman's horn arrangement for "God is My Shepherd (from Antonin Dvorak's Biblical Songs, Opus 99, 1894) echoes Ellington while his piano accompaniment raises the meditative specter of Bill Evans.

Floyd polishes the lyrics and music of Randy Weston's "Where into a sacrificial moan drawn from the blues, lightly seasoned by earthy funk. She adapts an "Act of Contrition from Mary Lou Williams' 1972 release Mary Lou's Mass, creating a poignant slice of liturgy for Weidman, who testifies on church organ instead of piano, preaching a soulful sermon from mount Jimmy Smith.

What follows an "Act of Contrition," doctrinally as well as sequentially, is "Mercy. The album's nine- minute centerpiece emerges as serious jazz, an exploration carved out hard and strong by Thomas' tenor sax into the granite foundation hammered in place by Weidman's double-fisted piano.

Floyd's annotations cite the scriptural inspiration/reference for each song. The release further includes as a separate set of liner notes the theological commentary Root to the Fruit: A Nexus of Jazz and Theology by pastor, author and lecturer Rev. Dr. John Nunes, a contributing scholar to Modern Reformation magazine and member of the American Academy of Religion.

The Holmes Brothers
State of Grace
Alligator
2007

Wendell Holmes plays guitar, piano and sings, and Sherman Holmes plays bass and sings. When Popsy Dixon joins on drums and vocals, this trio metamorphoses into The Holmes Brothers, the Blues Foundation's 2005 Band of the Year. Their three-part harmonies are honeyed country gospel but their front-stoop funk and dark, broken-hearted tales are pure country blues.

The Holmes Brothers make every song they sing sound gospel-sacred and gutbucket-funky. Look no further for an example than Wendell's twelve-bar electric spiritual-blues "Standing in the Need of Love. He leads this pained blue moan with guitar that strips off sheets of raw, primitive sound, each layer revealing new depths of anguish like a scabbed wound, while Popsy and Sherman offer comfort with sweet vocal harmonies: Elmore James meets The Impressions.

The Brothers also present a collection of cover material that comprises roadhouse Americana, drawn from Hank Williams, Sr., George Jones, John Fogerty, Nick Lowe, Lyle Lovett, and other songwriting greats from an authentic rural tradition. Several of these covers reincarnate, practically transubstantiate, the original material. "Bad Moon Rising cooks as a hot Cajun griller, a bayou two-step, while "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding snuggles comfortably in warm country-knit acoustic and pedal steel guitar. "I Want You to Want Me, Rick Nielsen's ode to throbbing teen lust for Cheap Trick, slows all the way down to a reverential, transcendent hymn, almost a prayer.

Roseanne Cash takes Wendell's hand to stroll with him down the memory lane of Williams' "I Can't Help It if I'm Still in Love With You, and Joan Osbourne steps out to front a raucous "Those Memories of You, rampaging while soaring in the spirit of Janis Joplin. State of Grace also marks the return to recording of Levon Helm (of The Band) since his recovery from throat cancer; Helm plays drums on "Three Grey Walls and snare drum and mandolin and sings on "I've Just Seen the Rock of Ages in a voice vulnerable on the edge of quivering, high and wraithlike, cast in all the haunted emotion of this gospel spiritual.

Ithamara Koorax
Brazilian Butterfly
Irma
2006

Except for two ballads—the cosmopolitan "Carinhoso, with her Brazilian jazz fusion compatriots Azymuth, and Herbie Hancock's title track—Koorax' ninth album is her most adventurous release. It seems constructed to honor legendary Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim and her husband/bandleader percussionist Airto: This Brazilian Butterfly soars and flutters while multiple percussionists (often as many as four on the same song, Koorax frequently flailing away among them, and primarily led by the late, legendary Dom Um Romão) knit together, pull apart, then reweave hot thick blankets of Brazilian rhythm.

Romão's "Amor Em Jacuma occasions an international jazz jam as Ron Carter's thoroughly upright acoustic bass and Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba's roiling piano set table for a solo helping of meaty trombone from Raul de Souza of Brazil. Pianist Francesco Gazzara lovingly renders Hancock's title tune, especially in his solo, which builds up chords then reconsiders their construction in equal parts musical architecture and alchemy. Koorax' most romantic vocal is breathed as much as sung, and it's hard to imagine many mortals could resist her languid invitation to "Stay awhile..., which just seems to float on air forever, like...a Brazilian butterfly.

The remaining material seems specifically composed and arranged to stress test Koorax' four-octave range. She swings joyously from the framework of Milton Nascimento's "Escravos de Jo, a melodic abstraction, airy and inscrutable—not packed as full but no less complex than Joni Mitchell's Shadows & Light, collaborations with Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. Her voice soars above the Afro-macumba chant "Lamento Negro and streams bright as dawn to open "Fica Mal Com Deus, then completely changes tone and color by digging into the piece's low notes with the growling fury of a blasting trumpet.

The opening "O Vento and closing "Frenetico drive Koorax' Brazilian journey into outer space: her voice intricately navigates the thorny, shimmering thicket of electric piano and four percussionists on "O Vento and on "Frenetico becomes the background frame for congas, bass drum and cymbal (not her voice) to come to the fore as the lead instruments. Each is an excellent vehicle for discovering and experiencing, then remembering, a remarkable odyssey. Brazilian Butterfly is Koorax' most fertile adventure in exploring the boundaries of contemporary Brazilian vocal music.

Dionne Warwick
My Friends and Me
Concord
2006

Primarily known as the soft, supple voice in front of so many classics written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Dionne Warwick here enters the popular "Duets arena by revisiting most of that catalog in the company of other female artists. It took more than "Wishin' and Hopin' to transform this concept into a worthwhile listen (though that song bubbles with Olivia Newton-John's still adorable voice): some solid singing from some surprising, distant corners of the pop realm did.

The project opens and closes with a bow toward Latin music, as Gloria Estefan carries her blues like a burden in "Walk on By while "Do You Know the Way to San Jose receives the most dramatic facelift, transformed by Celia Cruz into a six-minute Latin carnival that explodes with familiar colors and rhythms on piano, percussion, and trombone.

Gladys Knight throws the full power of her gospel/soul background behind "I'll Never Love This Way Again, raising the roof with her final chorus; in contrast, like a seasoned prize fighter, Warwick more discriminately picks her spots in this company, treading wearily yet wisely through the line "A fool will lose tomorrow reaching back for yesterday as if she truly knows it but in economical, almost half-spoken, conversational yet emotive phrasing.

Reba McEntire graces "I Say a Little Prayer with down-home country-gal charm, snapping off her lines as sugary and sharp as a fresh piece of mint chewing gum. The McEntire track is nicely programmed to lead right into "Anyone Who Had a Heart with Wynonna Judd. The set's darkest, most melancholy and perhaps most meaningful track, Judd finds strength through enduring the pain expressed by the lyrics. Wisely, Warwick lets Judd carry most of the emotional and musical weight.

"Close to You (with Mya) and "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head (with Kelis) seem more like pointed lessons, with Warwick demonstrating the difference between simply "giving voice" to a lot of notes and truly singing. Ironically, the one song that Warwick revisits alone on this album full of retrospection is a new version of "Déjà Vu, in which she seems to struggle against instead of float along with its currents.

Dinah Washington
Music for Lovers
Blue Note
2007

Dinah Washington's biting, blues-smoked phrasing is often cited as the primordial ground from which singers such as Esther Phillips and Nancy Wilson blossomed and, through them, more contemporary vocalists such as Chaka Khan and Patti Labelle subsequently bloomed. This new collection of ballads draws from Washington's 1962-'63 recording prime, a fertile period when she released several albums of ballads and blues, arranged and conducted by longtime Frank Sinatra favorite Don Costa, for Roulette and Mercury Records.

Like every female blues/jazz vocalist of the past century, Washington operates in a world first illuminated by the legendary Billie Holiday. Holiday's classic "Lover Man opens this set in dark shadow; the instrumentation is a typical "ballad-with-strings homogenized session, a foil to Washington's vocal phrasing, which burns acidic, almost bitter. Washington also mulls over a "Blue Gardenia (Holiday's trademark flower), accompanied by an ensemble that sounds smaller and blue-er.

"Romance in the Dark presents Washington at her wanton best; she writhes under the cover of Billy Butler's legendary soul-jazz guitar, relaxing to bounce with the insouciant lilt of the blues then grinding her hips and gettin' down to turn out the final verse in a voice that's authoritatively bad-ass and beautiful, her own flower growing from the root of Bessie Smith. Her interpretation makes it clear: she ain't talking about romance—she's talking about ballin' in the dark. Otherwise, Sings for Lovers presents Washington so focused on refinement that she distills the blues completely out of her repertoire.

Joe Williams
Music for Lovers
Blue Note
2007

Similarly, Joe Williams Sings for Lovers comes closer to the sophistication of Nat King Cole or Billy Eckstein than to any blues jump or shout to which Williams gave joyous voice as vocalist with the Count Basie Band.

Perhaps the best part of this material, drawn from Williams' 1959-'63 ballad albums for Roulette Records, is hearing Williams' profound, inexhaustible voice keeping quiet company with fellow Basie alumni Harry "Sweets Edison (trumpet), Ben Webster (tenor saxophone), and rhythmist Freddie Green (guitar), plus other first-rate jazz musicians such as Hank Jones (piano), Milt Hinton (bass) and drummer Don Lamond (a veteran of Woody Herman's Thundering Herd).

Pristine arrangements by Jimmy Jones and Ernie Wilkins cast Williams in a courtly voice. From his album Together with Edison, "Always inserts the rhythm section of Sir Charles Thompson (piano), Tommy Potter (bass) and Clarence Johnson (drums). Thompson's solitary piano sparkles against Williams' opening verse like sophisticated diamond jewelry, then swings out some single-note boogie while horns add their smooth blues touch. "Sweets sings out like his namesake to complete Williams' verses in "I Only Have Eyes for You, though the arrangement, like a chocolate candy, saves the middle break for Webster's smooth, creamy saxophone. Likewise, Webster's tenor huskily whispers to counterpoint Williams' opening verse of "If I Should Lose You, tinged with a sadness that allows Williams to dig into the blues a little.

In "Stella by Starlight, his stately intonation of "the murmur of a brook at eventide conjures up images as classically rustic as Walt Whitman. Like Williams' voice, its closing instrumental passage flows past as powerful and enduring as "Old Man River. It just keeps rolling along.

Spanky Wilson & the Quantic Soul Orchestra
I'm Thankful
Tru Thoughts/Ubiquity
2006

In previous musical lives, Spanky Wilson recorded more than half a dozen albums and performed and recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Smith, and Sammy Davis Jr. Philadelphia- born and bred, she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, then relocated to France, where she spent more than a decade as a jazz singer before returning to LA in 2000.

Upon her return, she was "discovered by multi-instrumentalist and producer Will Holland. Before they met, Holland had become a fan of Wilson's feisty and soulful voice through hearing her hard-to-find records. Once he found her through the help of a French journalist, he brought Wilson in to sing on Mishaps Happening, the 2003 release by Holland's electronica nom de plume, Quantic.

Here Wilson fronts Holland's live-performance ensemble the Quantic Soul Orchestra and comes back home to American soul, masterfully snapping off her vocals like the sharp-tongued spiritual heir to Aretha "The Queen of Soul Franklin. Featured in several instrumental reprises of Wilson's vocal tracks, the Orchestra sounds more like Wilson's co-star than her support band, and the rhythm section in particular plumps up on several New Orleans fatback grooves garnished with Memphis country funk.

Vocal (to open) and instrumental (to close) versions of the title track mash-up the insistent itch of classic James Brown with second-line snare drum rolls and snaps. "That's How It Was may sound like cheery fun, but it's a screed about post-Katrina Gulf Coast recovery efforts cast in torrid, thick Crescent City funk; Holland's production makes the snare drum crack like thunder and the bass sound like a big funk whirlpool swirling the music around.

Wilson is supremely cocksure on "A Woman Like Me ("...don't grow on no tree, just so you know) and on the second verse of "Blood from a Stone, a West-Coast Latin funk groove with a bass line and horn chart that sound poised to cruise through "Low Rider before veering tangentially off.

But Wilson also knows to not leave you without a smile, which she delivers with a romp through the warhorse "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover. Its frantic arrangement—an up-tempo blues two-step tugged in the opposite direction by lazy mariachi horns—presents her best vocal performance, probably because it challenges her voice the most.



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