When Francine Reed isn't singing backup with Lyle Lovett's Large Band, you might find her exercising her deep, soulful voice at two different venues in her adopted hometown of Atlanta. Some nights she belts out blues and R&B at Blind Willie's, a smoky blues joint in Virginia Highlands. Or, when the mood strikes, Reed performs swanky jazz with the house trio at the Ritz Carlton-Atlanta.
On Shades of Blue, Reed shows both sides of her musical personality. Five of the CD's 10 tracks are lush, jazzy tunes featuring Francine and her Ritz Carlton cronies (the Jerry Lambert Trio) along with a plethora of Atlanta-based musicians, including a string section from the city's symphony orchestra. The end product is somewhat similar to Linda Ronstadt's collaborations with Nelson Riddle. The remaining five tracks are blues and R&B numbers closer in style to Reed's first two solo releases on Ichiban, except stronger.
Jazz is familiar territory to Francine. When Lovett discovered Reed in 1985, she was fronting a jazz combo in a Phoenix, Ariz. Reed is a terrific singer in any format, but four of the jazz-oriented cuts on this CD are somewhat overproduced.
For instance, the song "When Love Was New" contains splashy ocean and rainstorm effects. It's a beautiful song that doesn't need the extra embellishment. Strings overwhelm Reed's dusky voice on an otherwise pretty ballad entitled "Beyond My Wildest Dreams." More successful is the swinging standard "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues," a duet featuring Francine and her sister Margo, a spunky singer in her own right.
Blues fans will prefer the last five tunes, three of which are enhanced by the great Muscle Shoals Horns. Songwriter Brenda Burns penned two songs that fit Francine like a glove: the deep-soul number "I Have A Right To Know" and the slow, bluesy "A Touch of Love." Also great is "I'm A Handful," an acoustic blues tune in which Francine shows off her patented attitude.
Despite the slick production on the jazzy tracks, Reed's considerable talent is much in evidence here. Shades of Blue is aptly titled, and it's Reed's best solo release to date.