As the story goes, German producer Ralf Kemper wanted to make one last great album with Jimmy Scott before he passed from this earth. But is this it?
Jimmy Scott passed away June 12, 2014, yet anyone who ever heard his voice still has it somewhere in his or her brain. The uniqueness was biological: a genetic disorder left him with a pre-pubescent voice. But it was also a singing voice he evolved over time, into a gift, in a countercultural direction -- slowing down when life's pace seems to eternally speed up. Scott took Billie Holiday's sense for stretching out time and doubled down on it, and then some. As he sang, the world stopped, amplifying our inner longing for calm, or inner impatience, depending on our disposition towards it, our willingness to accept. David Ritz's 2002 biography of Scott was fittingly titled Faith in Time.
As a figure in music history, he represents an eternal something, his name linked to icons in music across eight decades. Who else worked with Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Wynton Marsalis, David Byrne and Lou Reed? No one. Still, Scott's discographical legacy is one of continually thwarted brilliance. He left behind great albums, but their appreciation was mostly delayed, due to record label malfeasance and other forces -- from his 1951, Ray Charles-produced Everybody's Somebody's Fool to his eternal 1970 album The Source. His resurgence in the 1990s and beyond produced a host of brilliant moments (Dream, Heaven and But Beautiful are three albums I’m especially fond of).
The making of I Go Back Home is the subject of a 2016 documentary of the same name. As the story goes, German producer Ralf Kemper wanted to make one last great album with Jimmy Scott before he passed from this earth. In 2014, they recorded this album with help from a variety of Scott’s old and new friends, including jazz musicians of their own significance, like James Moody, Joey De Francesco and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Phil Ramone produced the album, and there are appearances by Arturo Sandoval, Gregoire Maret and more. In the trailer for the film, Kemper is quoted saying, “I had the money to make a great record with him. If Jimmy goes along with it, why not?”
There’s a suggestion within the trailer and the press materials that this may be the big album for Scott -- either a big commercial break or his most perfect album. The press release describes it both as “the sound of a singer going out on top” and “a love letter to a pioneering vocalist”. Not to take anything away from Scott as a singer, but in presentation it often seems more the latter than the former. The “love letter” side of I’ll Go Home is why there are two duets with Joe Pesci, for example, or why “I Remember You” has Monica Mancini singing but not Jimmy Scott. There’s a bossa nova tone to a portion of the album that seems more about Kemper’s proclivities than Scott’s. Oscar Castro-Neves, a legend in his own right, sounds great on the bossa nova duet “Love Letters”, though Scott seems a little out of place.
It’s great hearing Scott sing, always, and he takes on some truly classic songs that he’s long had a winning way with. A gorgeous, spare “Motherless Child” begins the album. He returns to “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”, again sounding like he’s delivering learned wisdom to the world. In other places he turns to an almost spoken delivery that’s more earthbound than usual, likely a sign of his declining health. On a song like “Someone to Watch Over Me”, he’s almost serving the role of just handing the song wholesale over to another less impressive singer, Renee Olstead.
Yet who is as interesting a singer as Jimmy Scott? At his best, he’s always been an absolute singular and transcendent vocalist, among the most powerful, transfixing, transcendent singers of all time. That means even this muddled sort-of tribute, sort-of celebration, sort-of Jimmy Scott album still manages to remind us of that fact, and pull at our heartstrings. But it also means it’s hard to hold it neatly against the rest of his discography without it seeming less successful and less significant, even compared to albums that were delayed for decades and then dismissed. Jimmy Scott’s life may not have been a fair one -- a theme of any book or documentary about him so far -- but he’s left behind magic that will be eternal, and that comes through in moments even within an album that’s perhaps trying too hard to convey greatness, a quality Scott didn’t need much help to display.