COURTESY KWAKU ALSTON / VERVE MUSIC GROUP
Gladys Knight finds comfort in American standards on "Before Me."
Cover albums from 2 great songbirds
Gladys Knight and Natalie Cole bring smooth style to Verve
IT'S NO surprise that a couple of confident veteran R&B singers would feel the need to reinvent themselves on their new albums. But to do it with attentive flair and style is a plus.
Both Natalie Cole and Gladys Knight have negotiated successful solo careers for three decades, and while they have had the occasional hit, they know they can't fall back on those golden moments to keep the momentum going.
Natalie Cole (Verve)
Gladys Knight (Verve)
Happily, both have found a home with the solid mainstream jazz label Verve, a company that knows how to keep such longtime musical acts relevant in today's market.
It's all about quality, and that can be heard emphatically on these ladies' latest albums. Knight's "Before Me" is filled with standards from the American songbook, with singing inspired by her heroes Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. It's very much in the tradition, as compared with Cole's "Leavin'," an album with a wide range of song interpretations from soul and rock.
Both albums contain cream-of-the-crop talent. Knight works with legendary producers Tommy LiPuma and Phil Ramone, and jazz stalwarts Billy Childs and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Cole turns to someone a generation below her, Dallas Austin, whose production credits include Boyz II Men, TLC, Madonna and Janet Jackson.
COURTESY KWAKU ALSTON / VERVE MUSIC GROUP
Natalie Cole covers a range of music on "Leavin'."
But everyone concerned deftly plays to the musical strengths of Cole and Knight. Cole overall likes to keep it small and down-home soul, inspired by the Memphis sound. It works on her take on Fiona Apple's "Criminal," the title track written by country renegade Shelby Lynne (made particularly tasty with a foundation laid by Hammond B-3 organ chords), and in particular a version of Bonnie Raitt's "Love Letter" that would make Al Green and Willie Mitchell smile.
Cole's album of covers contains only one original -- the solid "5 Minutes Away" -- yet is filled with pleasant surprises. Her take on the Des'ree's "You Gotta Be" is a welcome reprise, accompanied only by guitar. Cole does a nice, full-bodied version of Sting's "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You" that sounds like a plea to herself. And her self-described ladies' version of the Isley Brothers' seduction song "Don't Say Goodnight (It's Time for Love)" is a slow-jam burner.
THE REVELATION on "Leavin'" is Cole's surprising choice of "The Man with the Child in His Eyes," one of the early hits from British rock chanteuse Kate Bush. Buoyed by sensitive string and vocal ensemble arrangements, Cole grounds the originally fanciful love tome into something fiercely spiritual. It's very, very good.
The same can be said for the closing track of Knight's "Before Me" album. Knight's nuanced vocal turn on "Come Sunday" (from the sacred works of Duke Ellington and made popular by gospel great Jackson) is one of her finest recordings. The spirit definitely moves Knight, as she just lives the song. Combine that with a deeply felt piano opening by Joe Sample and a big-band arrangement by John Clayton that channels the Duke, and you've got sheer perfection.
Knight's take on the Gershwin classic "Someone to Watch Over Me" is nearly the equal of "Come Sunday." That's thanks to Billy Childs' imaginative arrangement, which bookends the down-to-earth big-band sound with harp glissandi and strings that bring out the song's yearning for heavenly guidance.
A bold R&B cover of another Childs arrangement, this time "God Bless the Child," runs close behind, with Knight drawing on her church background again.
Otherwise, "tasteful" is the operative word for Knight's album. She brings out the hopeful optimism of "I'll Be Seeing You," perfectly complemented by a trumpet solo by Chris Botti. There's an aural patina over her versions of "The Man I Love" and "This Bitter Earth," a hit for Dinah Washington in 1960. And she makes fine work of such war horses as "Good Morning Heartache" and "Since I Fell for You," both blessed by solos by trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, respectively.
Gladys Knight's voice is like a comforting balm, while Natalie Cole's adventurous spirit wins you over. Both of their new albums are well worth your listen.