Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Essence reviewed by MArk Thompson

Marion James
EllerSoul Records
13 tracks/68:29

Recorded in 2003, this project features singer Marion James who has been dubbed Nashville’s “Queen of the Blues”. Her history includes a top-ten hit for Excello Records in 1966 and a touring band that once included Jimi Hendrix and bass player Billy Cox. Like many other singers of her generation, James started out singing in church before making her mark as an R&B performer.

While time may have robbed James of some of her vocal range and power, she understands how to deliver a quality vocal. She takes her time, letting the songs unfold gradually, extending a phrase an extra beat or picking just the right moment to add a raw-edge shout to the proceedings.  Listen to her captivating performance on the funky, horn-driven arrangement of “My Mama”.  When she switches to a softer approach on “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” with backing from the Beegie Adair trio, James turns in a sublime jazz vocal treatment that demonstrates the depth of her talent.  They use a similar approach on “Be Anything”, which features some fine tenor sax from Denis Solee.

On straight blues tracks like “Please Don’t Waste My Time” and “You’re History, Baby”, James adopts a sassy attitude; her voice taking on a harder edge – but James never pushes her voice beyond its capabilities. Her spoken introduction opens a cover of Latimore’s “Let’s Straighten It Out”. Then James delivers an earnest vocal that makes this one of the better renditions of this oft-covered classic. Equally fine is her cover of Johnny Taylor’s “I Should Have Known” as James expresses the right amount of disdain for an unfaithful lover.

Musical support on this project comes from a variety of talented musicians including organist Reese Wynans (Double Trouble), guitarist Jack Pearson (Allman Brothers) and drummer Chuckie Burke (Issac Hayes).  They create strong musical backdrops for James’ dynamic vocal excursions. The last track is a twelve-minute interview with James that finds her discussing different parts of her career. She also performs two songs, accompanying herself on piano.  The second one, “Fool For a Young Man”, clearly illustrates the emotional depth that James can infuse into her work. It is a fitting ending for this marvelous recording that deserves to get a listen by anyone who appreciates a great singer.

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

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