In the last two weeks of February, the music industry released a veritable flood of interesting albums across a wide spectrum of genres. I’ve been busy listening to music searching for those albums that I can genuinely endorse with enthusiasm. Long time readers of this blog know I don’t necessarily chase the “new,” but rather give each album multiple listenings to separate the wheat from the chaff. By spending the necessary time on all of this new music, I fear I’ve neglected the first obligation of the blogger – to write.
Tonight I’m taking a departure from working through the new music to tell you about a couple of albums that I’ve been enjoying for several years. By coincidence I’ve revisited both in the last few days to “clear the palate” so to speak when taking a break from assessing all the new music. Both albums are by contemporary artists who took a departure themselves to pay homage to two of the giants of jazz singing from the past. Generally, I question my expertise to write knowledgeably about jazz. Occasionally, however, I come across albums that deliver music that one can thoroughly enjoy without necessarily knowing what a diminished chord is. The singers on these two albums made that leap and showed the true depth of their vocal chops while delivering immense pleasure.
Please join me on this departure. I think you’ll find it a timeless adventure.
Deborah Cox – Destination Moon
Deborah Cox came onto the recording scene in 1995 when Clive Davis signed her to Arista Records. After a couple of years she began to achieve considerable record sales and acclaim in hip hop and dance music scoring several number one hits in those genres. In the early 2000’s she began to move back and forth between her hip hop and dance recording career and theater work, such as a run on Broadway in Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s production of Aida. In fact she’s currently starring in the touring company of the theatrical version of the movie The Bodyguard.
In 2007, she took a major departure from her musical comfort zone and released Destination Moon, a tribute to the great jazz and blues singer Dinah Washington. This was not a change of direction. Rather it was just something she wanted to do and in fact worked on for a couple of years. I consider it a huge success, and it’s among my favorite albums.
First, Washington was in many ways a precursor to the great R&B singers. She was in that second generation of jazz singers who were inspired by the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, yet still wedded tightly to the blues. Although she could caress a lyric, she had a sassy personally and projected supreme confidence. Thus she was an excellent choice for a tribute from someone like Cox. Dinah Washington was a unique talent who bridged the transition from jazz to soul so well that she’s in the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. If Cox’s work brought her to the attention of a new generation of music lovers, then I’d say “well done.”
Although Washington’s biggest hit was probably “What A Difference A Day Makes,” I happen to love her in her “Queen of the Blues” mode covering Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues.”
The surprise is how damn good Cox is. Released from the repetitive pounding and electronic rhythm of hip and hop and dance music, she really takes hold of Washington’s songs and more than holds her own with a big band backing her. She handles big brassy uptempo numbers like the title track, classy ballads like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” or gut bucket blues like “New Blowtop Blues” with aplomb. In the early sixties, Washington herself took a departure from her normal jazz setting to record a couple of more commercial pop oriented R&B numbers with Brook Benton. Cox takes on one of those tunes, “Baby, You Got What It Takes,” interestingly with a more jazz oriented arrangement than Miss Dinah’s.
In this video, she not only sings “Destination Moon” but also talks a bit about why she made the album.
As I said, Destination Moon was a departure for Cox, and she went immediately back to her comfort zone. This was despite the fact the her album hit number one on the iTunes Top Jazz Albums and number three on the Billboard Top Jazz Albums charts. My recommendation to you is that you enjoy this great departure by Deborah Cox. And my second recommendation is that you give a listen to Dinah Washington herself.
Patti Austin – For Ella
By 2002 when she released For Ella, Patti Austin had already enjoyed a long career dating from the mid-1980’s working in the contemporary intersection of smooth jazz, pop and R&B with a touch of dance thrown in. She distinguished herself from others in the field with her uncommonly rich and supple voice whose almost natural antecedent was Ella Fitzgerald. I had an earlier album by Austin called That Secret Place, which could have easily been discarded if it weren’t for her magnificent vocal instrument and the depth of feeling that cut through the overly slick arrangements. So when I first saw For Ella, my reaction was “aha, Patti’s taken on a project worthy of her talent.” When I realized it had been cut with a classic big band, my anticipation ran even higher. When I heard the record, I smiled with joy by the match of material, singer and band.
Ella started as a teenage singing sensation with the hottest band playing Harlem’s Apollo theater in the 1930s, The Chick Webb Orchestra. When Webb died, she took over the band. Her career continued to develop in the 1940s when she mastered singing bebop while with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. During this period, inspired by Louis Armstrong, she took his scat singing to dazzling new heights. Then she really hit her stride in the fifties with a series of landmark recordings, each focused on the songbook of the greatest writers of the thirties, forties and early fifties – everyone from Cole Porter to Duke Ellington to the Gershwins. She became a favorite not only of audiences but also of the musicians and other singers with whom she performed. She could improvise with the best jazz players and hit any note, seemingly in any sequence, whether in beautiful ballads of when swinging like crazy.
In a sense she became a female counterpart to Frank Sinatra as both built their careers from the 1950’s onward by focusing on the “great American songbook.” For starters that means that Patti Austin’s tribute is first of all built upon magnificent songs. She doesn’t try to copy Ella, but she is able to put her own marvelous voice in service to songs associated with Ella in a manner that is fitting and, more importantly to you, thoroughly entertaining. Songs like “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Hard Hearted Hannah,” “Satin Doll” and “The Man I Love” soar anew. As with Deborah Cox, I hope you enjoy Patti Austin and are inspired to check out Ella Fitzgerald. (Among others, I recommend her pairings with Count Basie.)
Not too many singers could swing toe to toe with Frank, but then again not too many singers could swing toe to toe with Ella. See for yourself:
And in the category of why not…
Hey, I needed a break from country, cowjazz and R&B, and I do hope you enjoyed this little departure. And while we’re on the subject of great singers of great American songs, the Smithsonian’s 2016 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song was awarded to Smokey Robinson, one of my favorite songwriters. I saw the award concert on NPR last week and was particularly enthralled with Smokey singing Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay.” So I’ll leave you with that – one of the great R&B/soul artists takes on a songbook classic.
PS Just learned a few hours ago that Chuck Berry, the personification of rock ‘n’ roll passed away at 90. You can expect more on that from me in the coming days.