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From the Inside Out

Give the Singers Some!

By Published: February 17, 2007

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.



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