Remembering Natalie Cole

By Ernest Barteldes

720x405-gettyimages-478742538_

Natalie Cole didn’t really register into my musical radar during her early career – in the 1980s I was deep into doing musical research on the origins of blues and jazz and was listening to stuff no one my age did – my ‘pop’ was stuff like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Otis Redding, Etta James and Chuck Berry plus jazz icons such as Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong (thanks to this, I am able to write about music for all of you).

But when Cole released her now-classic Unforgettable… With Love (Elektra, 1991) I paid attention. I had been a fan of her father’s work, and it was refreshing to hear an album recorded with actual musicians at a time when everyone else seemed to rely synthesizers and computers. The title track, a duet with Natalie and her dad, became her signature song and was a bit overplayed at a time, but listening to the whole album reveals a burgeoning jazz singer with great pipes that completely changed her career.

I remember hearing another less-famous duet – one she recorded with Frank Sinatra on his “Duets” album (Capitol, 1993). The song was George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” in which she marvelously scatted during the instrumental break, making me remember of how Ella Fitzgerald improvised when singing alongside Sinatra over the years. That made me really pay attention to her, and from that point on I found myself with great respect to her talent.

I only got to hear her live once –  I am not sure if it was 2001 or 2002 – on a double bill at the City Center with Ray Charles. It was a memorable concert for many reasons: it was only my second show in New York, and I was thrilled to be able to hear two living legends on a single day.  We had lousy seats on the sixth floor, but the sound quality was great. Ray Charles kicked off the proceedings, doing classic songs such as “Hit The Road, Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind” – a tight set in which he played as many tunes as he could with the time he had.

Most of the audience was apparently there for Ray, so when he ended his set a lot of people left, which gave my companion and I a chance to sneak into a lower floor with better seats (we could have been ejected, but the person I went with had a bit of a devil-may-care attitude about things).  She came on after about half an hour. She was dressed in a form-fitting red dress and was very charming with the audience.  She sang mostly tunes from “Unforgettable” and “Stardust” (Elektra, 1996), closing with her R&B hit “This Will Be,” the sole song from her early career.

When I heard about her untimely passing, I found myself thinking about that one show I saw – a very happy occasion and a great memory of not one but two great performers who are now no longer among us – but still with us through the music they left behind.

Bluesy Christmas: Laura Cheadle’s “Ill Have a Blues Christmas” and Sheryl Crow’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”

By Ernest Barteldes

1448998959_rsz_christmas_album

Move over, “Santa Baby,” the song made famous by the late, great Eartha Kitt in which the singer hits on Santa Claus – you are not the sexiest Christmas song ever anymore. That title now belongs to Laura Cheadle‘s “Giving You Me For Christmas,” a driving blues with provocative lyrics about being ready to be unwrapped under the Christmas tree that is part of her  self-released “I’ll Have a Blues Christmas,” and album that blends original tunes with Holiday classics like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”  and “The First Noel.”

Other highlights of the disc include “Red Ain’t Everything,” which tells  Rudolph’s story from his own point of view, and a live rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” (there is no information of where it was recorded, but the audience sounds responsive and enthusiastic).  It is a strong disc thanks to the well-written arrangements and solid musical chemistry that Cheadle has with her family, who is present on every track.

  • 614k8jnjkvl-_sx425_

 

Speaking of blues, I recently discovered Sheryl Crow’s own Christmas record “Home for Christmas” (A&M), which is highly influenced by the sounds of Memphis. Recorded in the same era as her “100 Miles from Memphis,”  it contains mostly covers of classics like “White Christmas”  and “O Holy Night”  with a solid backing from a tight brass-heavy band featuring none other than Booker T (of the MGs), one of the key figures of the Memphis sound throughout the 1960s and 70s. I was surprised that I had never even heard about that disc for years – one of the last from her now-former label.

Among the best tracks are “The Christmas song,” played with a Jorge Benjor-like flavor. “Blue Christmas” has a nice backbeat focused on the rhythm section, great horn solos and of course Crow’s sultry voice. The inclusion of Crow’s “All Through the Night” (a track from ” 100 Miles from Memphis” ) seems a bit out of place on the collection, but it closes the album with a funky feel.

CD Review: Caetano Veloso’s “Abraçaço”

It took me a while for me to finally listen to this album, but it was worth the wait because I could get my mind off the cacophony around me so I could look at this without influence from anyone else.  For the third time, Caetano Veloso teams up with the youngsters of Bandacê to create what I would regard as a late-career masterpiece. For decades he relied on lavish arrangements (often under the direction of master cellist Jacques Morelembaum) and instead plays backed by a bare-bones quartet that is more indie-rock than samba. He still plays his bossa-inflected acoustic guitar, but his music is more visceral these days than it had been during his more commercial 70-80s days when he got British pop singer Richie to duet with him on the very radio-friendly “Shy Moon.” But I digress.

The Caetano I hear is closer to the guy I heard in the music he was writing in the late 60s and early 70s – the songs are highly biographical, and reflect memorable tunes like “É Proibido Proibir” or “Terra,” the latter being about a photo of the Earth seen from the perspective of someone who had been in jail for political reasons. This is evidenced by “Um Comunista,” a song that whose lyrics talk about the life and death of activist Carlos Mariguella, an activist who fought against the military dictatorship in Brazil and ended up assassinated by the police during an ambush. The tune also looks nostalgically at the dreams of the socialists of his era and the results today – one of the fighters is now president and no one seems to remember what the fight was about.

One of the most poignant tunes actually opens the album – “A Bossa Nova É Foda”(Bossa Nova Is The Bitch) – in just a few minutes, he looks at how the bossa movement changed his own perspective of music in spite of what “the poet from Minnesota” – a reference to Bob Dylan – could do to his writing. He seems angry at Joao Gilberto & Co. at times, but in the end he is grateful because they paved the way for him.

Many critics in Brazil derided the album as “too personal,” but what they missed is precisely that – I think Caetano doesn’t give a shit about what critics have to say. His real fans get him, and they will keep singing along to his songs even if the lyrics are somehow incomprehensible unless you understand his personal history.  Caetano has rediscovered his internal muse, and listening to him lay it like this is quite refreshing – even if you don’t understand the words.

Caetano Veloso

Abraçaço

Nonesuch