Upfront Soul 1/2007
Our editor's picks from the recent soul CDs
Another Broadway star turned into a recording
artists, ELISABETH WITHERS has been the most acclaimed newcomer of the
year 2007 so far, and you only have to listen to ten seconds of her debut CD It
Can Happen to Anyone (US Blue Note CD, 2007) to realize that Elisabeth
belongs to the elite of female vocalists today. She really has an impressive,
strong voice that she uses to good effect on the spirited, gospel-influenced
opening ballad Simple Things.
However, it seems quite obvious that
neither Elisabeth nor her record label (Blue Note) wants to limit her audience
to soul music fans alone, instead the album aims to please all kinds of music
fans, ranging from gospel, R&B, rock and pop listeners. There is little
doubt that Elisabeth could do a wonderful soul album if she wished to, but I’m
not that sure that she wants to record traditional soul. It seems like she
tries too hard to become a new Whitney Houston or Norah Jones.
Luckily, the album opens in soulful style. The aforementioned Simple Things is
probably the most traditional soul track on display here, having a rootsy feel but also
pop appeal. Gordon Chambers and Barry Eastmond contribute on the next ballad
song Heartstring, which has a more Norah Jones-ish approach with its
guitar and string coloured background, but Elisabeth’s intensive vocals keep the overall
atmosphere soulful. The next few tracks switch the overall mood closer and closer to pop-rock, with
Get Your Shoes On, being the worst on the whole album. If
you’re into teeny R&B with strong rock overtones, then this may be to your
taste, otherwise not!
The first single release Be with You
is superbly sung (just listen Elisabeth to deliver the lyrics “tonight I’m
gonna be every woman in your fantasy”), mid-paced soul-pop track with a catchy
tune co-written by Elisabeth, and Somebody is quite successful
in its own category as a Toni Braxton-ish trendy soul-R&B mover, but
obviously not a track that one would love to listen in the years to come. The
World Ain’t Ready is even more R&B-inclined and would not be out of
place on a Mary J. Blige album. After that Elisabeth returns into more gospel-soul-oriented
atmosphere and delivers her version of the much recorded Henley-Silbar
standard Wind Beneath My Wings (also known as Hero), of which we
have heard many soulful versions (Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Gerald
Levert, L.J. Reynolds etc.), but I’m not that sure that this is the right
kind of material for a young debutant.
It will be interesting to see if Blue Note manages to make Elisabeth a huge crossover
artist like Norah Jones, but if that doesn't happen, we may hear a strong soul album
by her some day.
When you google TEMIKA MOORE’s
name, you’ll receive lots of links to various jazz pages, but Temika’s second
CD Doing Just Fine (US Moore II Come, 2005) lacks the jazz
flavour that made Temika’s debut set Moment of Truth so inspiring. This
time, you can feel more India.Arie type of folk-soul and R&B vibes, and
if you’re more into that than jazzy soul, then the CD is well worth checking. At
least it’s better sung than 98 % of the albums that fill the R&B charts
these days, even if Temika doesn’t yet belong to the major league of soul
Many of the tracks combine programmed
beats with acoustic guitar and Rhodes, and the overall sound strongly reminds
me of India.Arie. It was thus not a great surprise to see India.Arie as one Temika's
first on her MySpace site, and among the others were such
artists as Floetry, Lalah Hathaway, Deborah Bond, Amel Larrieux and Rashaan
Patterson. Maybe Temika felt it was a high time to modernise her musical
image, having on her debut set performed standards like Summertime and
Everything Must Change, as well as excellent self-written new tunes like
The World Don’t Revolve Around You, Peace of Mind and I Love You
(Enough to Set You Free).
There are two cover songs on the new
album, too, the first of them being a delightful acoustic reading of the Isley
Brothers classic Groove with You. It is followed by another stylish
cover, Follow Your Road, which was originally recorded by Seawind,
and it simply demands a strong horn riffs and real drums. This is the kind of
track you might expect from a Tower of Power album, and I
certainly would have welcomed more tracks in this vein.
However, the next few cuts take fuse folk elements with inspirational
songs. “Imagine; the refined soul of Anita Baker meets the experimental
and deeply personal folk-style of Joni Mitchell who meets the
inspirational-themed style of Yolanda Adams” Temika’s
web page enthuses, but I’m not that sure whether this description excites our readers. A
traditional piano based ballad Conversation is probably closer to
our readers’ musical taste, and it gives Temika a good chance to show off her strong
A track titled A Woman offers a
surprising mixture of uptempo dance beats, horn riffs and programmed percussion
and Latin piano, and this is the track on which Temika tries her vocal improvisation
skills this time. As a whole, a very mixed bag of various musical styles, but
some solid soul cuts also hidden in between.
KATHLEEN BERTRAND’s soul-jazz CD No Regrets was our album of
the month in early 2002, and that excellent album contained both programmed
backings and gorgeous, jazz-inclined arrangements with real musicians. On her
latest set New Standards (US KJBE Music, 2006) Kathleen has a
chance to sing over classy, sax- and trumpet-laced musical settings on most of
the tracks, but as the title suggests, many of the songs are standards:
spirituals or traditional songs. A couple of new tracks are included, and
they too are also gospel-inclined tunes, and thus the whole project probably has a
very limited appeal outside inspirational circles.
Nevertheless, I personally enjoyed listening to several tunes on display. What They See is
What They’ll Be is a song written by Kathleen herself together with her producer
Phil Davis, and this soprano saxophone-coloured ballad is ideal material
for Kathleen’s mature, dark vocals. The spiritual Wade
in the Water features a swaying jazz backing with some superb trumpet
soloing by Russell Gunn, whereas another spiritual Since I Laid
My Burdens Down has an even more appetising sax-coloured jazz backdrop,
over which Kathleen delivers her deep vocals. There’s also certainly
nothing wrong with the traditional Is Your All on the Altar, arranged
by Kenny Banks and Kathleen as a modern beat ballad, or the
elegant jazzy mid-pacer Let Everything That Has Breath Praise the Lord,
which reminds me of Maysa’s best efforts.
Kathleen has also released a Xmas album by the title Reason for the Seasons (US KJBE
Music), featuring familiar Christmas songs done in a jazzy style. But next time, some fresh
new material, please.
Just like Smokey Robinson did earlier last year, GLADYS KNIGHT has now
released an album of jazz standards. Before
Me is Gladys’ debut on Verve, and she covers the most familiar
songs made known by such legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie
Holiday, Dinah Washington and Nina Simone.
In the liner notes, Gladys mentions that
she had had it in her heart to do this album for a very long time. And that
“what people may not know is that when I was a young teenager I sang in a jazz
band in Atlanta led by our high school band leader, the trumpeter Lloyd
Terry.” At the early stage of her career, Gladys was introduced to the work
of many great jazz singers, and on this album she has a chance to sing her
favourites from those days.
Neither Smokey or Gladys are really able
to modify their soul singing style into jazz: they do not improvise the melody
or scat, relying on their usual phrasing instead. The only track on which Gladys
tries some very mild scatting is the light mid-pacer But Not for Me.
Thus, Gladys’ performances cannot be compared to the interpretations of the
aforementioned jazz greats, but her soul fans
probably still find these versions very likable, as Gladys delivers the songs
soulfully, albeit in a smoother and more velvety tone than usual. She is also backed by some great
musicians, including a six-piece horn section and a real big band on a
couple of tracks. We also hear a couple of refined solos by tenor and alto
saxophone (David “Fathead” Newman, Steve Wilson), flugelhorn (Roy
Hargrove) and trumpet (Chris Botti). The overall atmosphere is very relaxed on Gladys'
soulful readings of jazz ballads like Good Morning Heartache, This Bitter Earth, God Bless the Child, The
Man I Love or Someone to Watch Over Me.
The few uptempo tunes have more swing, especially when Gladys sings
Duke Ellington’s Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me, which
is one of the highlights on the album.
I was amazed to note that even some jazz critics have acclaimed this album
not only for its classy production and musicianship, but also Gladys’ interpretations,
stating that “she is having an excellent dialogue with the band”. All this proves that
the border between soul and jazz is very vague indeed, and more and more songstresses
(remember Anita Baker’s and Miki Howard’s recent recordings) are crossing the border
DIANA ROSS’s Blue (US Motown, 2006) is another album
full of jazz standards, but the whole project was
actually recorded in 1972, when Diana acted in the film Lady
Sings the Blues. At that time Berry Gordy said that “Diana went
so deep into the character of Billie Holiday, she ended up singing too jazzy.
For the film, we had to pull her back to make the songs more relatable to a
general audience”. Needless to say, Berry Gordy shelved the album. Indeed, the
next album Motown released from Diana after the Lady Sings the Blues
soundtrack contained schmaltzy Michael Masser ballads like Touch
Me in the Morning, resulting in another number one pop hit for Motown.
34 years later, the album Blue now
finally sees the daylight, and I was really intrigued to hear what Berry really
meant by saying that Diana “ended up singing too jazzy”. Surely, her glamour
image was in great contrast to the troubled, rough image of Billie Holiday, and I
can easily understand the critics who moaned that they couldn't “think of a less
appropriate choice to play Billie” in the film.
In the CD leaflet, written by David Ritz, Diana is praised with quite
incredible phrases, claiming that “Diana’s gift was greater than anyone could have
guessed”, and that Diana “studied Billie so closely and conscientiously that her singing was
effortless. Diana felt a natural affinity to Billie. Diana instinctively understood the subtlety
that Billie used to convey feelings like confusion and pain”.
Honestly, I feel embarrassed reading
those lines, especially after hearing the CD. Diana has her crystal-clear
soprano, which has a beautiful sophisticated tone but I really cannot hear any
pain or depth in her vocalising, instead I can well imagine her trying to look
glamorous and smiling all through the recording session. Also, anyone who has
heard other soul songstresses – like Miki Howard, Patti Austin, Anita Baker
or Regina Belle – delivering jazz classics, instantly realises that Diana’s
versions are much thinner and more pop-oriented. Diana simply sings the
melodies as beautifully as she can, there is not even a hint of jazz in her
style, and I dare to add, there is no soul either, especially when compared to Gladys’
much more mature interpretations of jazz classics.
But then again, I don’t think it’s a
piece of news to anyone of our readers that Diana pales in comparison with all
the aforementioned singers. Blue is an interesting addition to the
collection of Diana Ross fans, but hardly essential for anyone else.
DIONNE WARWICK’ My Friends
& Me (US Concord Music Group, 2006) is, as the title suggests, a collection
of duet performances that Dionne does with several other female artists,
ranging from pop singers like Olivia Newton-John or Cyndia Lauper
to soul and Latin queens like Gladys Knight, Angie Stone, Celia Cruz, but also younger
generation of soul singers like Chanté Moore and Deborah Cox and
some country stars. The songs are Dionne’s old hits mainly from
The basic concept is therefore anything but original, especially
when Dionne has already recorded a duet album back in 1987
(Reservations for Two), which also featured male singers like Jeffrey
Osborne, Howard Hewett, Smokey Robinson and Kashif. And with artists
like the 16-year-old American Idol Lisa Tucker (whose favourite singers are Whitney
Houston and Mariah Carey), Dionne’s 12-year-old granddaughter Cheyenne
Elliott, country singers Wynonna Judd and Reba McEntire and Olivia
Newton-John joining the project, you can hardly expect a fiesta of soul music, but
I was interested in hearing the duets with soul singers anyway.
Unfortunately, the duets with soul heroes are disappointing, too.
Dionne and Gladys duet the schmaltzy Richard Kerr
/ Will Jenings song I’ll Never Love This Way Again, on which the
singers practically have their own verses individually, and there’s very little
real dialogue between them. This is definitely not my idea of a soulful duet. Also,
it was sad to note that Chanté Moore, Angie Stone and Deborah Cox
perform together with rapper Da Brat, who
effectively destroys the atmosphere on The Windows of the World.
The only track I personally enjoyed is
the closing track Do You Know the Way to San Jose, which is turned into
a rousing salsa celebration with Pete Escovedo Orchestra starring Celia
Cruz, the queen of Latin music who died in 2003. But this track was
already available on Dionne’s 1998 album Dionne Sings Dionne, so it’s almost
ten years old, and the fact that its outshines all the new material speaks
volumes for the overall standard of the CD.
VICTOR FIELDS’ fourth set Thinking
of You (US Regina, 2006) also contains plenty of cover material, but some
first class new compositions as well. Today Victor reminds me lot of Jon
Lucien, and I was not surprised to see him pick This Could Be Paradise
(from Jon Lucien’s 1997 album Endless Is Love) to his previous CD. This
time he decides to cover Bill Withers’ Lovely Day, Luther
Vandross’ Creepin’ and Teddy Pendergrass’ When Somebody
Loves You Back, among others, all of which are set in a smooth jazz
backdrop with names like Rick Braun, Jeff Lorber, Nelson Braxton and Nicolas
Bearde contributing. Very enjoyable versions, actually.
However, the real gems on the album are
new tunes. The title track is a heavenly mid-paced ballad on which Victor
virtually duets the song with saxophonist Vince Lars. The song is one of
the best new compositions I’ve heard in recent years. Jeff Lorber is among the
song-writers, and he also provides another new tune on the album, the relaxed swayer
It’s In Your Vibe, which reminds me of Walter Beasley’s best
efforts, especially when Vince Lars is again blowing his sax all through the
Victor Fields' albums have been getting more
and more popular especially among the smooth jazz buyers, which is really no
wonder, when he uses so much smooth jazz musicians providing the backgrounds. If
you like the vocal tracks typically included in every smooth jazz CD, here you
have a whole album of the same, smooth and sophisticated style.
TY STEPHENS’ CD Deeper
in Fantasy was our album of the month in late 2001, and the CD contained
several extremely tasty jazz-inclined soul cuts. Ty’s latest CD Aquarian
Mind (US Musichalemeon Entertainment TSR03, 2006) also contains some highlights,
but as a whole it’s a far too mixed collection of various musical styles to my
taste. Maybe the title of his own label Musichameleon best describes
the idea here: Ty goes from one style to another and the end result is a
cocktail of several styles. I often had a feeling of listening to a cabaret or
a musical play.
For those who would rather listen to soul, funk or jazz, only a couple of tracks are worth noting.
The album opener Waiting contains some funky bass and tight horn lines
over a rather busy rhythm.
Chaka! is a swaying uptempo mover dedicated to Chaka
Khan, but partly ruined by a strong rock guitar solo. An instrumental track
Skydance reminded me of The Rippingtons’ less inspiring cuts. What
Can I Do for You? is a spirited near 6-minutes long ballad creeper with a
strong jazz inclination and Freddie Hendrix blowing a flugel horn solo –
definitely the peak of album for yours truly. The other ballads feature real
instrumentation as well but the melodies are either pop oriented or cabaret
type of ditties.
Former Miss Black Atlanta GABBIE McGEE proves she can also sing on her debut CD Certified
Soul (US JNIM, 2005), which has received favourable reviews
among neo-soul enthusiasts. The first few tracks reminded me closely of Erykah
Badu and even N’Dambi’s and Antoinique’s jazz-inclined songs,
with Gabbie delivering swinging mid-pacers and improvised lyrics. The
opening track Boobie’s Groove has a nice Anotinique-ish touch
with scat vocals, and it is followed by an attractive melodic neo-soul song Now
I Know. Something So follows in a similar fashion,
and it was also featured on the Soul Brother collection This Is Soul 2006 last
Still, my personal favourite is a track titled Sunshine & Colors,
which contains a delicious bouncy backdrop with a meaty bass line
and some spirited piano playing over
which Gabbie sings the jazzy melody line.
A couple of tracks veer into R&B with
rap inserts, and the closing track is the only decent ballad on the album, but
let’s hope Gabbie continues in her jazzy neo-soul style on her next project.
I first heard ANGELA
BLAIR in 2004 when she released her 7-track CD Give Me Your Love.
The CD contained the wonderful ballad Rainy Daze, which was
also included in our Quality Time Top 50 of 2004, listing the most
impressive soul tracks of the year. Now Angela has released a full-length
album titled It’s All about Love (US RB Management CD, 2006), which contains
11 tracks, including Rainy
Daze and the Live Remix of the same song.
Rainy Daze is an intense,
ultra-soulful ballad reminding me of Shirley Jones or Angela Winbush,
but the live version of the song displays the gospel aspect of Angela’s
singing, and the whole album demonstrates that she really has a terrific powerhouse
gospel voice, which the original mix of Rainy Daze did not reveal.
The new CD is actually a rather mixed bag, containing modern, soul and jazz-inclined ballads, some
more R&B oriented cuts, as well as traditional inspirational,
gospel-oriented cuts. You don’t have to guess twice to predict that yours truly
favours the first mentioned ones, including the aforementioned Rainy Daze,
as well as new songs like the spirited mid-paced title track, and the instantly
appealing, stylish finger-snapping beat ballad Time is Time.
On the other hand, Celebrate
Life was a bit too R&B-inclined (like a typical Mary J. Blige track)
to my taste, despite the dynamic vocals, and Fill the Room
is a strong inspirational ballad in a Yolanda Adams vein. The CD closes
with two versions of Billie Holiday’s bravura God Bless the Child,
the first of them being a live version with an organ-drenched blues-tinged
backdrop, and a furious, gospel-type delivery from Angela, showing the
incredible strength and raw power of her vocals. The second one is an
almost equally frantic reprise version.
All in all, the CD really proves that we have a major talent with more than powerful
gospel-trained vocals here, but maybe an album that would stick to one style only
would be welcome the next time. Still, I think the CD is worth its price for
Rainy Daze and Time is Time alone,
both of which are essential for serious soul devotees.
JILL SCOTT has been
a popular quest vocalist on other artists’ albums in recent years, and her new CD
Collaborations (US Hidden Beach CD, 2007) is simply a compilation
of 14 different songs Jill has sung on other artists’ albums. They virtually
represent the whole spectre of modern American black music from hip hop to
jazz. The stylish Isley Brothers duet Said Enough (from Eternal,
2001) is the most soulful performance on offer, whereas Kingdom Come is a
quite typical Kirk Franklin’s hip-hop-gospel track on which Jill
delivers some gutsy scat singing. The track is taken from the Kingdom Come
I personally greatly enjoyed
the most jazz-inclined cuts, especially Good Morning Heartache, which is an
astonishingly elegant reading of the much-covered Billie Holiday
classic, taken from Chris Botti’s 2005 album To Love Again. Jill
herself starts her singing two and half minutes after the beginning of the song, and sounds
truly wonderful. Watch the video clip of the live version of the same on YouTube.
Another Billie Holiday
cover God Bless the Child has been picked from the fresh Al Jarreau &
George Benson CD Givin’ It Up, and it’s a quite tasty performance,
too. On Slide Jill Scott shows off her funkier side, duetting with Jeff Bradshaw’s trombone.
Not far from Fred Wesley type of stuff.
The element that probably
many Jill Scott fans miss on this album is her neo-soul side: virtually
all the R&B inclined songs here are rap-filled cuts taken from various hip
hop albums. The track that gets closest to neo-soul is the duet with Eric
Roberson. Titled One Time, it’s a rather routine Vidal Davis
production built over a stripped-down programmed beat backing. Of the hip-hop-oriented
cuts, my definite favourite is Let Me, which utilises James
Brown’s classic, meaty Funky Drummer beat over which Steve
Tavaglione blows the smoking sax solo. This Sergio Mendes-
Will.I.Am collaboration originally appeared on Mendes’ 2006 album Timeless.
All the albums reviewed in this column are available from
our CD shop.