It's been a while since the public has heard from Fontella Bass, but in case a reminder is needed, she had a huge hit in the 1960's: "Rescue Me." What many of the people who remember that hit may not know is that Bass was married at the time to the immortal Lester Bowie, and she followed him to perform for several years in France. She was an integral member of the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group during its founding years, and she performed in its early years with the World Saxophone Quartet.
So what has Fontella Bass been doing all of these years? Well, she's been playing, praying, singing and staying in St. Louis, where she continued to raise a family now involving 10 grandchildren. Some of that family appears on her new Justin Time CD, Travellin',
including her (and Lester's) son Bahnamous Bowie, her brother David Peaston and her son-in-law Tracy Mitchell. Recorded in St. Louis, Travellin'
is an almost entirely St. Louis project, reminding the world that the city continues to nurture fine and unique talent.
The R&B spirit has remained with Bass. It's most apparent, ironically, on the tracks that she doesn't
lead, such as "Special Lady" sung by Peaston and "Waiting" sung by Mitchell. With the keyboard gliding over the three changes and the two-part vocal enriching the sound of "Waiting," Mitchell veers into earnest R&B entreaties for the return of his girlfriend. Beyond the R&B, the CD contains instrumental tracks that allow the musicians to stretch out, particularly "DB Blues," a jump tune involving a repeated riff that builds to a hand-clapping finale.
Even though Bass generously allows her friends and relatives to enjoy the spotlight, she commands the CD with her still-powerful voice. More than that, she works her religious faith into most of the tunes, even those that nominally seem to have a neutral theme, like "Travellin'." Presenting an style more akin to, say, Anita Baker, than Betty Carter, Bass develops the tune as a testament of her faith. When she sings to "let the world know how good you've been to me," she's referring not to a mortal man, but to "oh precious God." And "It's Alright Now" isn't meant to comfort a human being who's hurting, but rather it tells a story: "When I started on my journey, I was a lost and lonely soul; I didn't know who I was, or where I wanted to go. I felt an emptiness inside me, something that I could not hide. Something in my heart just wouldn't abide." With gospel-tinged keyboard chords and a voice undoubtedly developed in the church, Bass can wring more meaning out of a single note than many less experienced singers can convey in an entire song.
Never is that more evident than when Bass sheds all modern references to her faith and goes unapologetically and joyously into hymns like "In The Garden" and "Thank You Lord." Reminding listeners of the tie-in between gospel and the blues and/or jazz, as Mahalia Jackson did with Duke Ellington, Bass has come full circle in recording spirituals that summarize her beliefs. At the same time, she acknowledges the more popular music that made her music known throughout the country for a short while in the sixties. Now, on Travellin',
Bass is interested in music that has an eternal meaning.