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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 songstresses.

  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 vocalising.

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 constantly.

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 60s.

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 track.

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 summer.

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 soundtrack.

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.

Ismo Tenkanen
Soul Express

All the albums reviewed in this column are available from our CD shop.

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