Melissa Walker: In The Middle Of It All (2009)
If there was something similar to "method acting" in music and it were not so passé a word, then it would be tempting to suggest that Melissa Walker's In The Middle Of It All is such a master class. As it happens, the record is a lot more than that, hinting at griot traditions and as exemplary a work in the contemporary troubadour tradition as anything put out today. It is cause for celebration that Walker, an enigmatic vocalistbecause of catastrophic the health issues that stalked her not too long agohas made a joyous return to the art of vocal music.
Melissa Walker follows the haloed footsteps of women like Abbey Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson, vocalists who inhabit the stories they tell with prophetic fervor. But unlike Lincoln and Wilson, who do not pay much heed to pitchpitch not really mattering because they embroider their voices with so many quarter tonesWalker hits her notes with deadly accuracy and still manages to convey great waves of emotion. Walker also has a great vocal range, nailing pitch no matter which of the three octaves she occupies.
Few singers can inhabit stories like Walker. She narrates these song-stories by striking notes with gong-like resonance. Her words glide on waves of emotion. They tug and twang on the strings of the heart as if intending to inflict an almost physical impression. On a dirge-like interpretation of Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up," she delivers its elemental sadness more powerfully than the original. "If You Could Love Me" is superbly rendered as a blue tango, and the lovers' argument that starts with "The Other Woman" and ends with "Forget Me" also describe heartbreak with skin-tingling reality.
"Mr. Bojangles," rendered upbeat and with a tinge of Latin swing, though elegantly different, misses out somewhat on the pathos of a version that Bob Dylan once sang on his 1973 Columbia album, Bob Dylan. Bronislaw Kaper's "Invitation" swerves with delightful swagger and dangerously exciting quarter notes in a version that reaches dizzying heights, as Walker takes it to her voice's upper registers. "I'm With You Now," Our Love Remains" and "Where Or When" appear to be made for Walker, as she makes the breathless agony and ecstasy of each song her own.
This record would not really be the same without the intensity and impressionistic colors that fly out of Gregoire Maret's harmonica, and who participates in the deep passion of the songs. There is also the consistently high quality of bassist Christian McBride, Walker's partner in art and who takes a sensational solo on "I'm With You Now," squeezing emotion with every note he plucks. And it is hard to imagine the work without Clarence Penn, who also shines on percussion.
Track Listing: In The Middle Of It All; Don't Give Up; The Way He Makes Me Feel; I'll Sing A Song; The Other Woman; Forget Me; Mr. Bojangles; If You Could Love Me; Invitation; I'm With You Now; Our Love Remains; Where Or When.
Personnel: Melissa Walker: vocals; Gregoire Maret: harmonica; Aaron Goldberg: piano, Fender Rhodes; Keith Ganz: guitar; Adam Rogers: guitar; Christian McBride: electric and acoustic bass; Clarence Penn: drums, percussion.