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Queen Esther: Sings Jazz & Black Americana

James Nadal By

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The multifarious talents which are the essence of extraordinary vocalist Queen Esther's identity, encompass the complete spectrum of music from rural southern blues and inner city jazz, to her innovative version of Black Americana. Born and raised in the Deep South, she was a prodigious child whose creativity was recognized early in life. After a successful artistic stint in Texas, where she perfected her unique take on folkloric roots music, Queen Esther relocated to New York City, embarking on a career which continues to flourish. With a respected and diverse discography going back to 1996, she has performed and recorded as featured vocalist in a variety of genres, from acoustical avant-blues, black rock, and theater productions, to jazz combos and swing bands. She has also produced several records as leader. This is a spotlight on two releases which display her dualistic nature and profound understanding of her musical heritage, in hopes of revealing the mystique nature of Queen Esther.

Queen Esther
What Is Love?
Self Produced
2010

In 2005, Queen Esther teamed up with pianist, composer and bandleader JC Hopkins to produce Underneath A Brooklyn Moon, the acclaimed first release from their fruitful collaboration. They joined up again in 2010 for What Is Love ?, Hopkins' contribution is notable in his production and composing duties, but it is a Queen Esther record all the way.

Hopkins has a natural inclination for capturing the vintage feel in his music which coincides with Queen Esthers' interpretations of the songs. "Remember When ?" opens with a tenor sax introduction by Patience Higgins setting the mood for the perfectly nuanced vocal. Hoagy Carmichael's perennial ballad "Stardust," receives a soulful transformation, before the upbeat question "What Is Love," brings a dazzling exchange between sax man Higgins and trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley. Queen Esther can relate to Billie Holiday better than most, and "I Cover The Waterfront," has her singing solo, backed by the unusual ukulele of J. Walter Hawkes; a showpiece song that reveals her control and elucidation of a timeless standard.

"Do You Want To Go To France" is a chanson shaded nostalgic trip, while the bluesy ballad "Either He's Crazy Or I Am," focuses on Queen Esther backed by a trio, underscored by piano accompaniment courtesy of Matt Ray. They continue down blues alley on "Everything Is Going To Be Alright," once again showing her comfort in performing at a slow cadence, and the pacific French horn intro by Vincent Chancey provides the pensive mood of "You Don't Know (How Much I Love You." Queen Esther provided the lyrics to "Dreamland," a wistful ballad enhanced by cerebral piano voicings, and the tasteful bowed bass work of Willard Greene.

The selections on this record are perfectly suited for the Queen Esther retro style of vocalizing. She has an innate sense of how, when, where a jazz singer should come in and out, using her voice as an instrument tuned to the highest and deepest of emotions, that's what she does.

Queen Esther
The Other Side
Self Produced
2014

Ray Charles, with Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, (1962 ABC- Paramount) erased any doubts that black musicians can perform country music as good as anyone. Though he did it with full orchestra backing and complex arrangements, the essential component of good story telling in a romantic context was front and center. Queen Esther has been around country, blues, and gospel her whole life. Her attendance in rural churches filled with the sound of the sacred steel guitars led her to combine country twang with southern blues and hymns, morphing into Black Americana. For The Other Side, Queen Esther composed most of the material, and the accompanying band is superb in their supporting role, as she takes the listener back to where she came from.

On her 2004 release Talkin' Fishbowl Blues, Queen Esther took a headfirst plunge into rock and roll, taking a page out of the Rolling Stones playbook. With this record, her country and gospel roots are more evident, though there are a few country tinged rockers in the mix. "Sunnyland," has a hard edge to it, with stinging guitar licks, but the lyrics are directly connected to her spiritual leanings. She goes full country on "I've Come Undone Again," the sweet fiddle playing of Charles Burnham taking it down a long dirt road, and Bob Hoffnar on pedal steel, accentuates the pleading vocal on the melancholic "Oh, Sun." Both of these reveal her total mastery of the country ballad, where heartbreak and pain hang heavy on the line.

But that is not to say that all is slow and simmering, her cover of "Jet Airliner," (Steve Miller Band) is classic radio rock, as is "Somebody's Else's Baby, " complete with power chords and rousing choruses. She goes into truck stop jukebox mode with "Sadness Everlasting," this time Raphael McGregor taking over pedal steel duties. He reprises the sacred steel on "Love Is A Wrecking Ball," supported solely by the acoustic guitar of Jon Diaz, as Queen Esther proves she can sing with any manner of accompaniment. "Will You Or Won't You," would be right at home in the Carter Family songbook, and the title track is a beautiful rendition of where gospel meets the wide open spaces.

The two other covers are Wanda Jackson's humorous "My Big Iron Skillet," and the Charlie Rich masterpiece "I Feel Like Going Home," performed with Jon Lloyd on church inspired piano. The latter, has her wringing every drop of significance and sentiment out of the lyrics, singing it as a solemn hymn for those weary souls who are tired, and long to go back to where they once belonged.

Queen Esther remains creatively active, dividing her precious time among the various projects she is involved in. The connection with Hopkins resurfaced in 2017 on the Meet Me At Minton's production, which featured her on three of the tracks, backed by the Biggish Band. She is in constant demand with her retro-jazz trio, as well as The Hot Five combo, which play lost classics, rare sides and lush standards. Her Black Americana group The Blue Crowns, continues to garner rave reviews, as the music draws a wider audience, her reputation as one of America's most versatile singers receiving overdue recognition and praise.

Tracks and Personnel

What Is Love ?

Tracks: Remember When; Stardust; What Is Love; I Cover The Waterfront; Do You Want To Go To France?; Either He's Crazy Or I Am; Everything Is Going To Be Alright; I'll Never Be The Same; You Don't Know (How Much I Love You); Dreamland.

Personnel: Queen Esther: vocals; Kenyatta Beasley: trumpet; Vincent Chancey: French horn; Hilliard Green: bass; J. Walter Hawkes: trombone, ukulele; Patience Higgins: tenor sax; Matt Ray: piano; Warren Smith: drums.

The Other Side

Tracks: Sunnyland; I've Come Undone Again; Jet Airliner; Oh Sun; Sadness Everlasting; Somebody Else's Baby; Will You Or Won't You; My Big Iron Skillet; The Other Side; Love Is A Wrecking Ball; I Feel Like Going Home.

Personnel: Queen Esther: vocals; Jon Diaz: acoustic guitar, electric guitar; Ronny Drayton: guitar; Marvin Sewell: guitar; Naisha Walton: bass; Sir G. Earl Grice: drums; Charles Burnham: violin; Ralph White: guitar, backing vocal (4); Bruce Edwards: guitar (4); Bob Hoffnar: pedal steel guitar (4, 7); Raphael McGregor: pedal steel guitar (5, 10); Jon Lloyd: piano (11), backing vocal (7, 9).

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