Years ago I remember listening to Randy Crawford being straitjacketed by an overbearing arrangement of a familiar pop song and wishing someone would figure out that an interpreter like that should be showcased, not manipulated to fit into a formatic box. Just let her sing! Joe Sample has been able to sneak a surprising amount of uncompromised music into a career of recording for major labels, but he's no stranger to the constraints of trend driven commercialism either. On Feelin' Good, you get to hear two of the most gifted and individualistic artists in contemporary jazz being themselves and bringing out the best in each other. It's a gift, it's a revelation, and it's been a long time coming!
Sample and Crawford's friendship and musical collaboration began almost 30 years ago when he played on her debut album. Then he invited her to sing on a Crusaders recording. The resulting song, "Street Life," was an international hit that established Crawford and brought the Crusaders to the attention of the crossover crowd. They continued to perform and occasionally write together over the years, but it has taken this long for them to do a whole album, and they picked a fascinating set of songs to record. They decided to not follow the trend of mining the Great American Songbook or covering familiar movie themes and pop hits. Instead, they sought out songs from African-American artists who did not have a high profile in the world of pop radio - singers like Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, and Dakota Stanton. They chose songs that resonated with them both, and would give free rein to Crawford's interpretative skills. This collection includes some brilliant obscurities as well as standards, torch songs, contemporary jazz classics, and perspective-shifting versions of pop songs.
Even when a CD is full of solid songs, it's always a good sign when you get stuck on a few and just have to hear them over and over again. That's where the emotional connection starts. I got so stuck on two songs in the middle of this CD that I had to wean myself off them so I could go back and listen to the whole beautiful thing in time to review it. "Love Town" is a little-known Peter Gabriel song from the "Philadelphia" soundtrack. The contemporary nature of the lyrics is an attention grabber since it follows two classic torch songs. Peter Gabriel lyrics are quite something to handle when he's at the top of his game, and she takes this one on with loose abandon, fleshing out every image and throwing in an inspired layering over a few lines of Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams” to bring it home. Nina Simone's earthy "See Line Woman" has been teched-up-to-date by DJ remixers, but this version does more to make it contemporary than any of those with its danceable percussion-driven groove and a voice that can sing about a woman who wiggles and purrs like a cat with a certain amount of harshness and an equal amount of purr.
Crawford ended her part of the liner notes with the words, "love affairs, love affairs, love affairs..." and here she sings about them from multiple perspectives. The breezy, bossa-nova tinged arrangement they bring to "The End of The Line" is a startling counterpoint to this song about the deterioration of a romance, which she vocally glides over with emphatic nonchalance until the end, when she cuts loose and shouts (like when you get tired of acting like it doesn't hurt, and he's already left anyway). "But Beautiful" continues the theme from a more hopeful perspective, she sings every word so thoughtfully and with so much nuance. "All Night Long" is about the imaginary lover who, due to the fickle nature of fate, has not yet materialized. Billie Holliday's "Tell Me More And Then Some" is bluesy and smoky with this wicked rock guitar line sneaking in the back door and she shifts "When I Need You" from sing-song to testimony with a gospel sounding spin. She is in a different vocal range for "Mr. Ugly," handling this quirky love song with a sweetness that sounds almost old-timey. They also rearranged two songs Crawford previously recorded, "Rio De Janeiro Blue" and "Last Night At Danceland.” "Danceland" sounds more intimate but doesn't lose intensity. "Rio," which I have always loved and was skeptical about hearing in this setting, actually makes the original version sound constricted. This one is loose and shifts the focus from the arrangement to the voice and the lyrics.
Over the last few years Tommy LiPuma has produced some spectacular "back to basics" albums for contemporary jazz stars, and he's working his magic again on this one, which he co-produced with Sample. It’s essentially a vocalist in a trio setting -Crawford and Sample with Steve Gadd on Drums, Christian McBride on bass, and guitar interludes from Anthony Wilson, Dean Parks, and Ray Parker Jr. - but the material and arrangements take it far beyond the traditional jazz trio sound. Sample has stated in interviews that he wanted his piano arrangements to give Crawford's vocals a lot of space, which they do. They also show how flawlessly he can play the perfect notes at the perfect places to create a setting for any type of song. This is not a singer and a backup band, it's pure interaction. In the process of creating these arrangements to showcase Crawford, though, Sample has provided quite a showcase for himself. His solos are vintage Joe Sample. In a setting this sparse you can hear every note he plays, then become in awe of the fact that he plays just that note in just that place. Feelin' Good is a Desert Island CD. It's one of those that you can go back to over and over because quality and relevance of the songs, the artist's interpretative skills, and the fact that you will hear something new every time you listen. They didn't play it safe, and that's what will make it timeless. These songs and the way Crawford sings them shed some light on the stuff we go through. Love affairs...love affairs...and so much more. We don't need a comfort zone created by songs we've heard hundreds of times before, and we don't need layers of computerized gimmicks to keep our interest. You can't help but be captivated by music like this when you get a chance to hear it. It draws you in, enables you to admire the artistry without being intimidated by it, stimulates your imagination, and makes you want to move at the same time. This is what jazz did before it became an academic subject that we analyzed and studied. This is what jazz can still do when it's placed in gifted hands like these.
- Shannon West