There are some singers that you will be totally pissed off at yourself for not having the chance to see, or—even worse—having the dough but deciding that, well, you’ll catch them the next time they’re in town. Ray Charles I saw just months before his passing, and while he showed his age, it was still Ray Charles. Aretha Franklin is one of those icons that you must see, you just have to see. Whether she’s singing the old Motown hits of yesteryear or belting out an impromptu aria at the Grammys in recent years, everyone knows Aretha by her first name. And this collection, while not containing any of the huge hits from her vast catalogue, is a tender reminder that Franklin can give you soul whether it’s in the field of pop, soul, R&B, blues or, in this case, jazz. This collection, part of a series featuring some of the label’s bigger artists in their jazzier moments, is a very solid one which ably demonstrates the many facets of one Miss Franklin. Just check out reports from her performance at the late Luther Vandross’ funeral to see if she still has that intangible something.
From the opening notes of “Just For A Thrill”, with its tension-tinged strings that then become cinematic, Franklin is in full control, with the listener hanging on every breathy word that comes out of her mouth. Decades before Norah Jones, Franklin was performing the same type of music—although the lush strings are a bit much at times, coming close to unfortunately dating the tune. But she is still capable of carrying such a song with that bluesy, jazzy voice which seems to morph effortlessly from one genre into the other. Released in 1962, the Louis Armstrong cover ambles along with some deft piano tickling at the cusp of the homestretch, with Franklin bursting out temporarily before sealing the deal. “What A Difference A Day Makes” is a far better effort, as nothing is forced. Franklin’s tender timbre melds well against the horns and subtle strings. You can almost envision her churning this out with the backing band behind her. Timeless and an instant classic, Franklin gently pushes it along without stealing the spotlight, until two-thirds of the way in when a lovely sway enters the song.
The first spine-tingling moment comes during “God Bless The Child”, the Billie Holiday signature which Franklin almost surpasses. Again the lush arrangement could deter the overall effect, but Aretha nails it from the get-go. Unfortunately, while the wistful and reflective “When The World Was Young” is solid, there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about. “Misty”, taken from the 1965 album Jazz To Soul is the kind of classic, smoke-filled-room jazz that Aretha was born to sing, fleshing out some notes when needed but with such control that it’s mesmerizing. “I get misty whenever you’re near”, she sings before the guitar chimes in. “Skylark” slows this mellow album down a notch or three as Franklin carries the gentle track that was originally found on 1965’s The Queen In Waiting.
Throughout the entire 14 songs, Franklin rarely misses the mark with such bullet-proof, error-free selections, especially the near heavenly “But Beautiful”, which is quite beautiful. Then there is the highlight of “Only The Lonely”, which glides along gracefully, followed by the gorgeous “Drinking Again” that crawls at a snail’s pace. Yet by the time you begin listening to “For All We Know”, you realize that you’ve just spent the last hour or so enjoying an icon, one who remains so regardless of the genre she happens to be performing.
// Notes from the Road
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