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People such as myself, who often find themselves engaged in heated discourse about the state of contemporary jazz, tend to welcome semantic additions to the language of the debate. So it was with great glee that I discovered drummer Franklin Kiermyer’s new term for what is loosely called “free jazz”—“American Ecstatic Music.” He originally used the term to describe Pharoah Sanders’ roiling saxophone on Solomon’s Daughter, a 1993 Kiermyer date, but it’s a perfect description of the still-arresting passion of vocalist Etta James.
Unlike many vocalists and instrumentalists who came to prominence during the heyday of rhythm and blues (from the late ’40s until, say, the mid-’60s), James has not let time put a damper on her ability to wring emotion from relatively bland material—material, it must be said, that is often undeserving of such a gorgeous fate. Like any number of artists whose rounds on the “chitlin circuit” gave way to oldies show appearances or chronic unemployment, James has been plagued by heavy-handed attempts to make her artistry palatable to contemporary tastes. It is to James’ credit that she has always managed to rise above platoons of strings as well as artless attempts to rekindle the greasy funk that characterizes her classic performances.
Fortunately, on Live From San Francisco, James is graced with a crack, funky ensemble and decent material. The performance was recorded in 1981, but resounds with the brand of searing sensuality associated with stellar James numbers like “At Last.” The songs here range from titles like the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit” to classic blues vehicles such as Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” but each performance has the individuality of a fingerprint. And, unlike most backup bands, James’ quintet knows when to surge forth and when to step back and allow her to sail.
This is especially evident on the collection’s finest performance, a ballad reading of Kiki Dee’s “Sugar on the Floor” wherein James jumpstarts the somewhat maudlin lyrics. Through her coursing sung and spoken asides, the singer personalizes the sense of romantic gain and loss presented by the text. These asides fade like a nearly extinguished candle, allowing the ensemble to bear scarcely audible witness to the singer’s troubles, only to suddenly rise like one of Noah’s doves before surging into a downright nasty reading of “Mama” and an equally memorable Otis Redding medley. It wouldn’t be fair to call Live From San Francisco James’ magnum opus, but it is a consistently arresting reminder that the singer’s interpretive gift and capacity for melodic embellishment have deepened and broadened with time.
Despite prevailing stereotypes about Scandinavian artists’ lack of warmth, Norwegian-born singer/songwriter Sidsel Endresen is blessed with the ability to make lyrics and emotional conditions as real as a sunrise.
On her latest, Exile, Endresen allows her terse, poignant lyrics to take center stage. The disc is her second for ECM, and the first on which her subdued lyricism (think Blue-era Joni Mitchell) has been backed by European jazzers like pianist Django Bates and bassist Dalle Daniels. Endresen’s best efforts read something like poems, as the opening lines from “Stages” illustrate: “Like being in a story/Like starring in a play/Acting some destiny/Far, far away/From anywhere/Like watching yourself/Walk down the street/Like, what’s new?”
In “Stages,” Endresen’s dark and discreetly celebratory vocals link arms with Bates’ slowly rising melodies. And like all great singers (and great poets), her voice embraces each syllable. By the time she reaches the end of the song—“Like we were going somewhere/Like a Chelsea morning/Like a tender berry/Oh, darling/Like I was never there”—Endresen has broken our hearts by infusing with suspense what would otherwise have been little more than a list of similes.
Endresen sustains this kind of evocative power throughout the balance of Exile. Yet the disc does not exhibit the brand of moody romanticism traditionally associated with the ECM label. On the contrary, the agitated rhythmic patterns that characterize much of the collection suggest a kind of Scandinavian-based funk. Endresen’s ensemble is a far cry from the musicians who backed James at the Apollo, but like those aggregations, they are able to sustain the emotional impact of a song’s text without impeding the singer.
It would be foolish to attempt to define “the kind of music” James or Endresen produces. Yet the artists share a willingness to take enormous emotional and musical risks. If someone asks you, simply quote saxophonist Oliver Lake who, in a poem, included the following exchange: “What kind of music do you play?” “The good kind!”