Monday, March 29, 2010

In review--Ladies Sing the Blues

Catherine Russell
Inside This Heart of Mine
World Village

Ana Moura
Leva-Me Aos Fados
World Village

I received jazz/blues chanteuse Catherine Russell’s third release on World Village, Inside This Heart of Mine in early March. I’ve been champing at the bit because I want to shout out to the world about this fabulous recording. And Ms Russell’s provided us with a spicy repertoire filled with jumpin’ jive, New Orleans jazz (Dixieland, I believe), some smooth standards, swing and blues classics. From the opener, the steamy titular with Russell’s captivating vocals to the New Orleans number, Struttin’ with Some Barbeque. The song even entices a vegetarian like me—rhythmically and melodically speaking.

The swinging All the Cats Join In features some stunning solos by Dan Block on saxophone and Jon-Erik Kellso. Russell shows off her vocal prowess on the swing numbers, especially on We the People with its delightful syncopation and on the Gospel-tinged Troubled Waters. She’s equally at home rousing the band as she is belting out those soulful blues laments. Her voice framed by accordion, horns, piano, banjo, acoustic bass, violin, drums, guitar, and tuba, Russell’s recording sounds like a classic.

Jazz ballads such as November and the titular track would be at home on Madeleine Peyroux’s and other standard jazz performers’ recordings, but in Russell’s hands the repertoire of songs composed by Willie Dixon, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and others, boil over with ingenuity. She’s a mature performer who runs circles around her younger contemporaries. Some jazz and blues women vocalists merely emulate those grand dames that came before, but Russell comes off as an original that interprets classics and applies the right nuances from her emotional palette. Inside This Heart of Mine proves unforgettable with the tunes resonating in the mind and body long after the CD stops playing.

Portuguese fado has been labeled the blues of Portugal. Many years ago Mariza, then a rising international star, captivated my ears and turned me onto fado. I had heard archival fadistas prior to that, but hearing modern interpretation of Portuguese blues sung by a contemporary fadista blessed with a vocal and emotional range felt like a real pleasure. Since those fateful moments when Mariza’s fados found my willing ears, I have enjoyed albums by numerous fadistas, most of them sopranos and all of them representing a new generation of fado superstars.

I had seen Ana Moura’s name around, but I’m only getting on board now with her newest CD, Leva-Me Fados. A contralto, it took me a few minutes to adjust to her voice, since most of what I’ve heard so far in the world of fado has been sung by mezzo-sopranos and sopranos. Moura opens with the title track and she reminds me a horse leaping out of a start-up gate. It’s not exactly an off-to-the-races moment, but Moura sings from a place of power and passion. The traditional musical arrangements are sure to please the fado veterans that took Moura under their wings, early in the vocalist’s career. In fact, this recording reminds me of the archival fado recordings I discovered back in the 1990s—back when few Americans outside the Portuguese immigrant communities knew about this vocal genre. Yet anyone who believes in fate or expresses healthy emotions would have fallen in love with artists such as Mariza and Moura even back then.

Listening to Por minha conta (track 3) it’s easy to see why rock and pop musicians fell in love with Moura’s vocals, or why the fado veterans nurtured the young vocalist’s career. She’s young and from another era, but she sings with gusto and all that she is worth. It would not be unheard of to feel authentic emotions and wipe tears from your eyes while listening to this particular track. And you don’t even need to know the English translation of the text. (English and other language translations of the text appear in the liner notes).

Similar to the flamenco diva that takes us to duende or the blues singer that causes us to feel emotions deep down in our bones, Moura awakens dormant feelings. The 17 tracks provide an emotional map for this musical journey. I just can’t imagine anyone not enjoying the immense pleasures this album provides. And if you’re like me, pick up fado recordings by Mariza, Cristina Branco, Joana Amendoeira and other singers of fate and enjoy a music festival in your home.

World Village

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