Fontella Bass & The Voices of St. Louis


by Mark Anthony Neal


I would imagine that to most fans of 1960s Soul and pop, Fontella Bass is little more than a “one-hit wonder”. Bass’ chart-topping single “Rescue Me” was one of the most distinctive Soul ditties from the period. On the contrary, Bass did not disappear into pop music obscurity, but instead changed her flow finding a home in the world of avant-garde jazz recording with her late husband Lester Bowie, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, saxophonist David Murray and the World Saxophone Quartet. In the early 1990s the St. Louis born Bass began to record Gospel music with her 1995 recording No Ways Tired earning a Grammy nomination. Travellin’ represents Bass’s first recording in over five years.

Released on the Canadian label Justin Time, the recording features the Voices of St Louis, a collective of St. Louis area musicians that include Bass’ son Bahnamous Bowie on keyboards, her son-in-law Tracy Mitchell on guitars and her brother vocalist David Peaston. Peaston released two recordings under his own name in the late 1980s including his stellar debut Introducing David Peaston (1988) which included the Teddy Riley re-mixed lead single “Two Wrongs (Don’t Make It Right)” and stunning renditions of “God Bless the Child” and “Can I” which was recorded by Eddie Kendricks a decade earlier. Travelin’ includes a wide range of blues and gospel-based tracks that Bass suggest is on par with Quincy Jones’ 1995 recording Q’s Juke Joint in that regard.

The recording’s title track is a smooth breezy tune written by Bass and her son that is emblematic the ease in which Bass can still switch from smooth jazz to a harder gut bucket edge as is the case on the track “It’s Alright Now”. The gospel track, which was written by Jessy Dixon features a guitar riff reminiscent of Hall and Oates’ “Sarah Smile”. Peaston’s still solid falsetto is perfectly captured on the infectious “Special Lady” and evenmore so with the support of pianist Ptah Williams and saxophonist Dwight Bosman. Williams also contributes “Mandela”, one the two instrumental tracks on the project, the other being the rollicking “DB Blues”. Also known as the “The Dirty Bitch Blues” the song is a composition from the pens of St. Louis locals Dwayne and Dwight Bosman. Many of the project’s tracks in particular “Waiting” which was penned and sang by son-in-law Mitchell as a tribute to his wife and Bass’s daughter Neuka and “Round and Round” which features Peaston again on vocals are the kind of solid innocuous fare that should find a home on Smooth Jazz radio. Ultimately the recording’s best tracks are those where Bass embraces her Gospel roots. Bass is the daughter of Martha Bass, a member of the legendary Clara Ward Singers. Ward is generally regarded as being a primary influence on Aretha Franklin and thus a strong influence on the Soul music tradition. Bass is in classic form on the traditional Gospel tracks “Walk With Me”, “In the Garden”, and “Thank You Lord”, which all feature vocal arrangements by Bass herself. “In the Garden” is reminiscent of Bass’ performance of Bowie’s “For Louie” (All the Magic, 1983).

In an interview with the St. Louis Dispatch admits that part of her motivation for recording Travelin’ with such a stellar group of local St. Louis musicians was to put St. Louis back on the musical map. According to Bass, “A lot of the greats aren’t in St. Louis anymore. Everything is all about New Orleans. But we’ve got great musicians right here in St. Louis who are part of the jazz scene, part of the gospel scene, part of the rock ‘n’ roll scene, and part of hip-hop now that Nelly is breaking through.” With the release of Travelin’, audiences will hopefully be reintroduced to Bass and get an introduction to the formidable musical legacy of the city of St. Louis.

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