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Soundtrack, Various Artists, 'Bessie (Music from the HBO Film)' [REVIEW]

By Mike Greenblatt m.greenblatt@classicalite.com on Jul 11, 2015 06:11 PM EDT
Bessie Smith They called her "The Empress Of The Blues." (Photo : Courtesy Legacy Records)
Bessie: Music From The HBO Film Queen Latifah as the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith (Photo : Courtesy Legacy Records)

What makes Bessie one of the best soundtracks of the year are the raucus devil-may-care attitudinal values from rebel artists — mostly black — during the Prohibition Era (1920-1933) coupled with today's superior recording techniques. Swing provided that generation their rock'n'roll kick. And gutbucket blues too. So when no less a star than Sippie Wallace (1898–1986) writes and records "I'm A Mighty Tight Woman," sold under the counter as a "race record," she was under no fear of reprisal. White America wasn't yet listening. In the brothels, of course, true integration had been happening for years. (Lady Day first heard Pops in a Baltimore whorehouse.) And just like the two joyous Boardwalk Empire soundtracks, the wild Dixieland jazz of the time is certainly better represented today by an act like Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks (their two action-packed instrumentals are amongst the many highlights here). Back then, for instance, producers hadn't yet discovered how to record drums. Today, with every hi-hat ping or crisp trebly rim shot on the snare, you can feel the excitement.

Still, there's something to be said for authenticity. And this disc has it in spades. Sippie, Louis "Pops" Armstrong ("Weary Blues") and Kid Ory ("Ballin' The Jack") can attest to that. There's even a duet through the magic of the studio between Bessie Smith (1894–1937) and Queen Latifah (an enhanced remix of yet another shout of independence, "Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer").

Queen Latifah acquitted herself so well as Matron Mama Morton, the bossy women's prison warden in Chicago (for which she received an Oscar nomination), and two subsequent albums of jazz standards, that now, it seems like there's nothing she cannot do. And she shines here. Her versions of "Young Woman's Blues," "Preachin' The Blues" and "Long Old Road" (all of which Bessie wrote) are, in a word, sublime.

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TagsREVIEW, Bessie Smith, Queen Latifah