Sunday, 17 June 2012

How Glad I Am that I discovered Aretha's jazz past

It has been sometime since I wrote regularly for my blog, so it’s high time I at least attempt to write the occasional paragraph. I seem to accumulate CDs and DVDs at such a ridiculous rate that I thought I would begin by writing the occasional review of the latest additions to my collection. For my first selection I am taking a look at a recent compilation by the greatest of soul divas – Aretha Franklin ARETHA FRANKLIN – THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK When most of us think of Ms Franklin we tend to think of the classic soul tracks she recorded for the Atlantic label in the late sixties and early seventies, such as “A Natural Woman”, “Think” and “Respect”. The definitive recordings she recorded during this period have possibly over shadowed everything that she did in later years, and this is certainly the case when it comes to the recordings she did for Columbia in the early sixties at the beginning of her career. Apparently it became common place for people to say that these early albums were produced by a label that neither understood or supported Franklin as a performer and are inferior to everything that followed. However, Aretha is on the record as saying that what she really wanted to be was a jazz singer, and that she holds these recordings in high regard herself as the arrangements and production, were exactly as she wanted at the time, and she held the musicians in higher regard than those on her more successful songs. Putting all that aside I can only judge the recordings as I find them myself., and as a lover of the great American songbook, I can judge them alongside the great artists of the last eighty years or so who have made a success of singing the music of Porter, Berlin, the Gershwins and more. I can possibly divide the songs into two categories. Firstly, tracks such as “What A Difference a Day Made” and “How Deep Is The Ocean” where she plays it straight with arrangements close to the originals. I almost expected the vocal histrionics that typify a lot of Aretha’s work (for better or worse) but what Franklin does is showcase the music and lyrics in a similar way to Ella Fitzgerald did on her acclaimed songbook series for the Verve label, and she is no less effective than Ella herself which is high praise indeed. Secondly, there are the recordings where Aretha let’s loose and swings. She throws herself into these songs with what seems like abandon, but on closer listening it’s clear that these are meticulously considered renderings on a par with the greatest of jazz performers. What sets many of these tracks apart are the inventive arrangements where Aretha deconstructs a songs and re-invents it so it sounds like something you are hearing for the first time. This is typified by her take on “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, but the absolute highlights are possibly “How Glad I Am” and Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” which give her full rein to really let loose and show what she can do, but without the over indulgence that some of her later work exhibited. It’s fair to say that I was totally blown away by this compilation and can’t recommend it highly enough. Aretha Franklin has now gone from a singer I used to quite like and appreciate to one that I regard in the highest terms and want to discover more about. FURTHER RECOMMENDATIONS If like me you listen to and enjoy this album then do as I have done and seek out some of the individual albums from this period where she was, as oft described, “the Queen in waiting” Many of these discs are available in budget priced box sets. So far I have added “Unforgettable – A Tribute To Dinah Washington”, “The Electrifying…”, “Soul Sister”, “The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging”, and “Running Out Of Fools” to my collection and none of them have disappointed – they all highlight the great Jazz singer that Aretha Franklin was in her early twenties whilst showing a tantalizing glimpse of the consummate soul diva she would become.