Music can be a form of perfection - with nothing added or subtracted, flawless just the way it is.

Ugh, I haven’t posted in almost two weeks now, it’s almost like I slept through the holidays. Anyway I’m back now, so let’s get right to it.

Roberta Flack, there’s an amazing singer! I’m not sure why I haven’t written about her in my women in jazz series, but I’m making up for it now. I was introduced to her music by a good friend last year and I’m still grateful.
Roberta Flack is a singer and a songwriter, born in 1939 and most notably known for her hits in the 70’s. If you’ve never heard of her, you probably know her by her famous “Killing Me Softly With His Song”, which won her a Grammy in 1974. Another quite renowned song she recorded is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”.
I don’t care too much for either of these songs and I’m not sure why. I guess they just don’t move me. But I do love and respect Roberta and the reason for that is her first three albums - First Take, Chapter Two and Quiet Fire . They’re soft, sophisticated and soulful. In life in general, I appreciate things that slowly build up to their peak, may that be in music, movies, books, shows or food. I feel that if something builds up to its full intensity gradually, it’s much more powerful than it would be, if it was as forceful from the very beginning. And I’m saying this, because I think songs in these albums provide just that - a wonderful slow build-up. That, of course, doesn’t mean there’s not much happening, it means they’re really powerful and strong.
Her music on these albums is like the ocean waves hitting the shore - at first glance it seems slow, quiet and serene but in reality it has so much power and energy.
These three albums are amazing and I highly recommend them. Here are two songs to get a feeling of what kind of music to expect.

Roberta is still creating new music. Just last year she recorded an album Let It Be Roberta: Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles . I really like The Beatles and I used to be obsessed with them so when I saw that she made an album full of their songs I was excited. As soon as I started listening to the album, the excitement was replaced with disappointment. With the exception of one song, it’s an awful album (at least to my ears anyway). You know, how sometimes older people try to sound young and hip but they end up just sounding awkward? Well that’s how I feel about this album. It sounds like she did some stuff on it just because “it’s what young people listen to these days”, instead of doing her own thing. For the better part of the album I was shaking my head, and asking myself “why?”. As much as I enjoy Roberta’s early music, this is one album I probably won’t listen to again.

What do you think? Do you have a Roberta Flack favourite? As always, I really appreciate any kind of comments.

5. January 2013
Jazz Roberta Flack Soul Women

Otis Redding

After talking about Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke, here’s another Soul giant. Otis Redding was one of the pioneers of Soul music and was truly amazing. He had a signature raspy voice and amazing ability to convey raw emotion. There are three words that apply perfectly to what Otis was all about: Passion, Energy and Emotion. He’s considered to be one of the greatest singers of all time and his singing style influenced many singers. To name only a few - Al Green, Joe Cocker, Bill Withers, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison and many others. In fact he’s number 8 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 100 Singers of all time. He was also highly respected by The Rolling Stones, who covered his That’s How Strong My Love Is and Pain In My Heart and in return he covered their (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. So anyway, if you know who he was, you know exactly what I’m talking about and if you don’t, then please, read on, because you’re missing out.
Otis Redding’s first big hit was These Arms Of Mine but the hits really started flying about three years later, when he recorded stuff like Mr Pitiful, I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, I Can’t Turn You Loose, Satisfaction, Respect (out of which Aretha Franklin later made a huge hit), Shake and others. He mostly sang just ballads and party tunes and I’m not a big fan of the latter. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s all great stuff, this is just me being very picky. What I don’t like about those tunes (like Shake, Hard To Handle…) is that they sound quite simple, they’re done in the same brassy style every time, so after a while it all sounds a bit repetitive. It wasn’t like this by chance of course, it was simply because Otis really appreciated the beauty in simplicity. On the other hand, I’m crazy about his ballads. Songs like Pain In My Heart, Try A Little Tenderness, Amen and others are just too good to pass on. To me, songs like these showcase his singing and his abilities to convey emotions powerfully. Listen to Pain in My Heart and listen to how he sings ‘Love me’ or ‘Come back’. It’s so compelling.

In 1967, he recorded (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay. At the time he was already very successful and he was already considered to be a great singer, musician and a song-writer but this song took all of that to a whole new level. It was a breakthrough for him as a musician and it pointed to new heights that his music might go to. But, just days after it was recorded, one of the biggest tragedies in the music history happened when he died in a plane crash. He was 26. I’ll leave you with the song and the enticing question “What if”.

P.S. I wrote this post after a friend requested it. If anyone else has any requests, I would love to hear from you!

23. December 2012
Otis Redding Sam Cooke Solomon Burke Soul

Here’s a follow-up on the post I did a few days ago. This time around, I’ll mention a few Christmas albums that are a bit different from the usual stuff. A kind of change that is very welcomed among Christmas music, that otherwise sounds the same most of the time.

First off, it’s the Godfather of Soul - James Brown and his album James Brown’s Funky Christmas. The title pretty much sums it up and it’s quite an unusual combination, at least for my ears, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. If you ask me, it’s actually great. There are a few misses along the way, but overall it’s a great Christmas album, with amazing, powerful, energetic James’ singing. I definitely recommend it, if you’re in the mood for something different. Listen to Sweet Little Baby Boy or Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year to get a taste of it. Do you know the song Please Come Home For Christmas? Here’s James Brown’s surprising rendition. It’s very different from other versions which is exactly why I love it.

The First Lady of TheSong recorded Christmas albums too. And good thing she did. Listen to Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas to hear how classic Christmas songs were supposed to be sung. Here’s my favourite on the album, ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’.

Last, but not least is one of my favourite musicians of all time, Ray Charles. In 1985, he recorded The Spirit of Christmas. Before this year, I didn’t even know he recorded a Christmas album. I think I know, which album I’ll have on repeat this Christmas. The warm, soulful sounds Ray managed to create time and again, fit perfectly with the Christmas spirit and the result can be heard on this album. I wouldn’t listen to this album outside the Christmas season though, for it sounds cheesy at times. But since it is Christmas, I love it!

Here’s my favourite on the album, ‘All I Want For Christmas’, and don’t let the title scare you, it’s not Mariah Carey…

What are your favourites? What do you think of my humble selection? Comments from anyone are, as always, welcome.
Next time, since a good friend requested it, it’s Otis Redding (if anyone else has any requests, you should never hesitate!). I’m Looking forward to this one! I’ll leave you off with a great song, which connects this post and the next.

13. December 2012
Christmas Ella Fitzgerald James Brown Jazz Ray Charles Soul

There are many reasons why I decided to do a Christmas Special. For one, I LOVE Christmas. As a little kid, I used to count down days till Christmas and my birthday (which is near Christmas) one month in advance. I don’t do that anymore, but not much has changed since then. I’m still a little kid who gets giddy with excitement over Christmas. I can easily get into the Christmas spirit and I love it! For example a couple of days ago, the first snow of this winter inspired me to put on Christmas music and prepare some roasted nuts and mulled wine for my parents and my girlfriend, even though it was just the beginning of December.
And the reason I’m doing a Christmas special more than two weeks before Christmas, is because I’m sure there are plenty more people like me out there. Also, I want to give anyone interested in the albums I’ll be talking about some time to get them (getting them on Christmas Eve is too late).

I’ve been a fan of Christmas music for some time, but I was never able to find something good. Most of what I listened to, was of bad quality, it all sounded pretty much the same and it seemed like it was made in a hurry and with just money in mind. I guess that’s the sad part of Christmas music - it’s easy and cheap to make and everyone will try making it, which means there’s so much crap out there. But fortunately there’s also a lot of great heartwarming Christmas music, you just have to find it. Last year, as a combination of luck and frustration, I found a couple of Christmas albums which I just love and today, I wanted to share them with you. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them as much as I do and they will bring you some Christmas cheer.

The first one is my favourite Christmas album ever. Most of you will know it, but whoever doesn’t, should listen to it as soon as possible. Vince Guaraldi and his A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s a perfect combination of holiday playfulness, jazz, warm sounds and of course - Christmas spirit. It tastes exactly like those roasted nuts and mulled wine did. It’s on top of my ‘most played albums during holidays’ list. Below is a little taste of it. Now go and get it!

If we’re already at the more jazzy side of Christmas, I have to mention Wynton Marsalis’ Christmas Jazz Jam. This one’s a bit more demanding than A Charlie Brown Christmas, so it may not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s a great album. It has many wonderful moments like Good King Wenceslas and O Little Town Of Bethlehem to name just two. Whenever I listen to this album I feel like it’s putting together two of my favourite things. Jazz and Christmas. Does it get any better than jazzy Christmas?

Still on Christmas with jazz, here’s Louis Armstrong & Friends doing What a Wonderful Christmas. When I first heard it, I was a bit disappointed to hear there are only 6 out of 14 songs by Louis. This makes it more of a compilation with a focus on Satchmo than an album done by him. Nevertheless it’s a wonderful album that’s easy to enjoy. It features names like Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, Peggy Lee, Louis Jordan and Lena Horne. All in all, it’s an even better combination than Christmas Jazz Jam - Jazz and Christmas AND Louis Armstrong! Just thinking about it, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The only thing that leaves you sad after listening to the album is that Louis Armstrong didn’t record more Christmas songs, because he’s so incredibly good at it. Here’s Winter Wonderland done by him. Listen and see what I’m talking about.

(Here’s a post about it in Ricky Riccardi’s blog)

That’s it for now but I’m not done yet. Next time I’ll continue with other great, maybe a bit unexpected but great Christmas albums. Until then, tell me, is there anyone else out there who gets excited over Christmas and Christmas music? What are your favourites?

9. December 2012
Christmas Jazz Louis Armstrong Vince Guaraldi Wynton Marsalis

Etta James

Here’s a singer! Nicknamed ‘Miss Peaches’, Etta James was born in 1938 and her amazing career spanned from the 50’s to around 2010. She left a great legacy and a big amount of wonderful music for us to enjoy. If you don’t know her, you should read on, because in my experience, everyone seems to like Etta James. Doesn’t matter what music you’re into, there’s a chance you’ll enjoy Etta.

I started listening to Miss Peaches after a recommendation from a good friend and she’s been one of my favourite female singers ever since. She has probably the strongest voice I’ve ever heard in a woman and with it she can sing whatever she wants. She defies labels and genres, so it’s really hard to say what she sings, but I’d say it’s a bit of jazz, a bit of blues, a bit of soul, and a bit of R’n’B. She also didn’t like being put into a category and she said that she just sings what she sings and it doesn’t really matter what you call it.
Most people will know her by the song At Last or maybe I’d Rather Go Blind, but there’s more to her than just those two songs. What I like about her is that it doesn’t matter what mood I’m in, I can always find an album that’s appropriate. Anyway, I would recommend you get some kind of Best Of Etta James album, because it’s hard not to like her, and I doubt you’ll be sorry. Also on the recommended listening list are These Foolish Things from her Billie Holiday tribute album and a duet with Dr John - I’d Rather Go Blind, which I personally think is probably one of the best duets ever.

Miss James had a turbulent life, which sometimes reminds me of that of Billie Holiday. She was born to a 14 year old mother, she never met her father, and throughout her whole life, she was struggling with relationships and drug addictions. You could say that, like Lady Day, she also not only sang the blues, but lived the blues. She explains that because she felt the pain, she could sing the songs the way she did.
Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington were her greatest influences. I talked about Billie Holiday before and I’ll talk about Dinah Washington next time, since they’re all connected in a way.
Etta admired Lady Day greatly. I was watching an interview with Etta, in which she described how the two met in the 50’s. Miss James was only about 17, 18 at the time and when she met her, Billie was very weak. Her feet were all swollen, two men had to help her walk around and, as Etta remembers, her hands were almost like boxing gloves. Etta observed her nervously and eventually their eyes locked and Billie said to her “don’t ever let this happen to you”. In hindsight, she found this intriguing and strange and it had haunted her for a while. The thing is that at the time, she wasn’t into drugs at all, but later when she got addicted, she remembered that moment and wondered “Why did she say that to me? Why did she look in my eyes and say that?”. I think it’s all very interesting how even though she didn’t want it, her idol’s fate got a hold of her and how that very same idol could foresee it. (this is a nice thought)

If I had to choose one song to try to introduce someone to Etta James, it would probably be an obvious choice like All I Could Do Was Cry. But if I wanted to choose a song which would showcase her singing, her interpretations, her raw emotions, it would have to be Feeling Uneasy. The song is just filled with pure pain, sorrow and hurt and she delivers it perfectly. They recorded the album while she was in rehab, and when they recorded this particular song, the withdrawal was especially bad. She was in so much pain that she was actually unable to sing the lyrics. All she could do was shout and moan, so they just let the tape roll and this is what they came up with. A haunting, painful and poignant piece of music.

What do you think? What about Etta James, do you like her? What are your experiences with her music? Please, share your thoughts!

19. November 2012
Billie Holiday Blues Dinah Washington Etta James Jazz Soul Women