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Robin McKelle: Soul Flower

Reviewed by Ismo Tenkanen

Rating: 8/ 10

Soul Express CD of the Month - October - December 2012

French Doxie Records /RCA Victor CD, 2012
Buy this album from our CD Shop

1) So It Goes 5:20 2) Tell You One Thing 3:59 3) Nothing's Really Changed 3:34 4) Fairytale Ending 3:50 5) Miss You Madly 5:09 6) Don't Give Up 3:41 7) Walk On By 3:13 8) To Love Somebody 4:06 9) Change 3:42 10) I'm Ready 4:49 11) Love's Work 4:30 12) I'm A Fool To Want You 4:50

American soul music has been virtually dead in 2012. A good description of the current state of soul music is that our best selling new soul CDs come from France and Italy: jazz singer Robin McKelle has released her latest set Soul Flower in France only, while Italian jazz-soul singer Mario Biondi continues to attract European audience with his Lou Rawls-type of performances. Meanwhile in U.S.A., soul flames are kept alive by 70-year-old veterans, like The O'Jays members Eddie Levert and Walter Williams, both of whom have released new solo sets in 2012...

So who is this Robin McKelle, anyway? I've been following her career since she was featured on the CD project One by Ian Martin, who introduced Robin's voice (then by the name Robin McElhatten) to the soul world with heavenly tracks like Because the Love Is Gone and Rise. When I interviewed Ian in 2001 and asked about Robin, Ian told me that "Robin McElhatten has recorded a straight jazz CD called Never Let Me Go, which is a great disc".

Needless to say, I acquired that CD, and I'm glad that I did - as it is now priced 250 US dollars on! The album was reviewed in our printed issue 1/2003, where I described that "the overall atmosphere is throughly traditional and smooth, yet very enjoyable, if you're into straight vocal jazz".

After that debut set, Robin got married and switched her name to Robin McKelle. She released her first album by her new name in 2006, entitled Introducing Robin McKelle, featuring mostly jazz standards and backed by a 50's/60s' type of brassy big band. Two more jazz albums followed in 2008 and 2010: Modern Antique and Mess Around. Of her jazz recordings, my definite favourite is her 2008 set Modern Antique, which featured a wonderful jazz reading of the Steve Miller pop tune Abradacabra as well as absolutely glorious interpretations of jazz classics like Comes Love and Lover Man.

Soul lovers had probably last heard McKelle when she was featured on the second set by Ian Martin, titled The Way from 2005. But now she has released a complete set of retro soul; the album has been released by the artist name Robin McKelle and the Flytones, entitled Soul Flower, and the CD was released in France only. The backing group plays only real instruments: piano and organ, drums, bass and guitar and a horn section (tenor saxophone, trumpet and trombone).

Looking at the album cover, I had a feeling Robin has tried to fill the gap left empty by Amy Winehouse, and undoubtedly this album now fits in the same genre as Winehouse, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and other recent retro-soul artists. On her net bio, Robin herself describes this project as follows: “It’s the record I’ve always dreamed of making. Not that there was anything stopping me in the past, it’s simply that things panned out differently.” The singer herself wrote most of the songs on this new production, a contemporary blend of soul and rhythm ’n’ blues that avoids today’s retro tendencies. “I love that music so much that I couldn’t see myself doing something ‘in the style of…”. I grew up listening to Nina Simone and Gladys Knight. I sang their classics and what I enjoy most today is building my own repertoire in that same soulful vein.”

The album mostly contains original new songs (co-written by Robin), but also a few covers like I'm a Fool for You and Walk on by. Still, the most impressive tracks in my book are the new songs, such as the instantly memorable singalong tune Fairytale Ending, the bouncy old-time R&B styled Nothing's Really Changed (featuring a great solo by Mike Tucker) and the highly emotional ballad tune Miss You Madly.

The album also contains two very interesting duets with Lee Fields and Gregory Porter. Fields was just interviewed by Heikki Suosalo, and Heikki regards Lee as "possibly the most dynamic old-school, raw soul artist today". You can easily believe that listening to Lee's and Robin's wonderful Southern soul type of reading of an old Barry & Robin Gibb song To Love Somebody. This is what Robin herself cites on her bio: “In fact, weirdly, there was all this revival - Raphael Saadiq, Sharon Jones - when I was involved in jazz. I was aching to join in. Among all the artists was one I admired more than anyone, especially after My World, his record on the Truth & Soul label. Lee (Fields) has great presence and sincerity. In the studio, when we covered the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody (also recorded by Janis Joplin, Dusty Springfield and others), I felt such a thrill. His voice was so powerful it covered mine.

On the other hand, Gregory Porter has been the most acclaimed jazz/R&B singer in recent years, and he has recently been nominated for "Best Traditional R&B Performance" in the 55th Annual Grammy Awards - the winner will be announced February 10th 2013. The duet between Gregory and Robin, Love's Work is another superb track in the early 70s type of Bill Withers vein, and will certainly do no harm for Porter's reputation as the best new jazz / R&B vocalist of this century.

Robin herself is a fabulous new vocalist as well, and certainly deserves all the publicity she can get, with or without the help of other great vocalists of today's traditional soul and jazz genre. As a whole, I rate Soul Flower as the most important soul release in 2012. It simply proves that you can still record authentic old-time soul music, with real musicians and brilliant vocals, if just given the chance. Retro or not, this the real thing and should be heard by all lovers of genuine soul music.
- Ismo Tenkanen
Soul Express

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