Monday, January 24, 2011

Esther Phillips Gripping CTI Recordings

This is the second part of my consideration of the neglected Atlantic and Kudu Records of Esther Phillips. The first part was yesterday.

After her time with Atlantic, Esther Phillips, signed with Kudu, a subsidiary of the CTI, Creed Taylor’s innovative Jazz label and made a series of seven albums that produced more superb music as well as some of here biggest artistic and commercial success. This period of her work is also generally ignored by many writers on the blues, but if the blues is about the facts of life, can their be a more gripping blues recording than Esther’s narrative about “the world can watch you die” with her “white power dreams,” in her unforgettable and chilling rendition of Gil Scott Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.” The smoldering funk rhythm and big band horns and strings arrangement is perhaps far cry from the stereotypical guitar dominated blues band, but few recordings of the past four decades hit the listener’s gut as this.

Home Is Where the Hatred Is: The Kudu Years 1971-1977” is an anthology of 18 selections from Esther Phillips’ seven CTI albums on the Australian RavenRecords label. In light of Sony’s recent initiation of a significant reissue program to mark 40 years since CTI’s birth (with a fine 4 CD reissue “CTI Records: The Cool Revolutions”), one can expect the rerelease of remastered editions of the original albums that are anthologized here. The first five selections are taken from the Grammy nominated album “From a Whisper to a Scream” (the one I believe that Aretha handed her Grammy to Esther for). The title song of the from the pen of Allen Toussaint and a powerful, soulful performance of a love gone sour with Esther begging her man to forgive her for overlooking the needs and wants of her man, with swirling strings, flute and horns adding to the mood. Eddie Floyd’s country soul classic “‘Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone,” is a particularly strong soul vocal about having to keep walking to find her baby.

Three selections follow from the follow-up Grammy nominated “
Alone Again, Naturally,” with her remarkable slow-drag tempo reworking of Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” being another highlight as is Esther revisiting “Cherry Red,” on a rendition that evokes the midnight hours that is at least equal to the Atlantic big band version with spare keyboard accompaniment and spare, evocative guitar allowing her vocal to soar. her compelling rendition of Joe Cocker’s “Black-Eyed Blues,” served as the title track of Esther’s third Kudu album. Also from that album was another Bill Withers composition “Justified,” with a funky groove as she shows and cajoles her man “I’ve forgiven you every time you’ve lied,” but enough is enough and she’s living him and is justified.

From the “Performance” album came a funky-rocking version of Clarence Carter’s “
Doin’ Our Thing” with some nice guitar as well as the topical “Disposal Society,” from Eugene McDaniels with its mix of pre-Green ecological sentiments and disposal relationships, disposal plates and disposal love “dispose of me before I dispose of you.” A discofied rendition of “What a Difference a Day Makes,” may be the most familiar selection here with the audible background moans distracting from an assured vocal with an appealing vocal. From that same album comes the moody “I Can Stand a Little Rain,” with effective use of sound effects. Obviously the dance version of “Unforgettable” was an attempt to follow-up “What a Difference,” while Jackie DeShannon’s “Pure Natural Love,” also sports a dance groove. From her last Kudu album, “Capricorn Princess” comes a superb ballad performance, “I Haven’t Got Anything Better To Do,” and the CD closes with a terrific live rendition of “God Bless The Child” with the CTI All Stars that was only issued in Germany and Japan with her distinctive nasal tonality and jazzy phrasing, with the All Stars taking a tempo shift behind a short guitar solo after which they slow things down as Esther evokes Billie Holiday to close this marvelous performance and compilation

Esther Phillips would record for Mercury after leaving Kudu and then die in August, 1984 of liver and heart failure at the age of 48. She left behind a legacy of blues, jazz and soul vocals that frankly still are under appreciated. These Kudu recordings are an important part of Esther Phillips legacy that await your discovery.

I presume that CTI the original CDs will be coming back into print and remastered. It should be noted that the original CTI/Kudu albums were mostly recorded at the Legendary Rudy Van Gelder’s studios and were known for the distinctive packaging as well as superb audio.

This was reviewed from a CD I purchased.

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