Kim Burrell knows a thing or two about the finer points of vocalizing, as confirmed by the many musicians who have praised her talent since she started singing professionally. Her raspy edged, precision-timed voice is a natural gift that has allowed her the rare ability to balance the power of gospel with the complexities of jazz.
Before Burrell reached her artistic apex as a recording artist, she created plenty of hype in the gospel music community through a series of captivating solo appearances with various mass choirs in her home state. After her humble beginnings with The Greater Emmanuel C.O.G.I.C. choir in her birthplace of Houston, Texas, she was spotlighted on several various mass choir recordings in the early nineties. "Praise Him" backed by the GMWA Youth Mass Choir and "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus" with The Trinity Temple Full Gospel Mass Choir of Dallas Texas are two examples of standout performances where her alto voice commanded attention .
After several sessions as a featured vocalist, Burrell released her solo debut, Try Me Again, in 1997. Despite limited distribution, the independent release's confident mixture of gospel and jazz drew a buzz with critics and peers, and earned Burrell a contract with the gospel division of Tommy Boy Records. Burrell did not disappoint her supporters with her follow-up discs. Everlasting Love peaked at number 12 on the Billboard Gospel Charts in 1998; and the Grammy nominee for the 2002 Best Soul Gospel Album Live In Concert, revamped several of her songs from her first two discs with the usual gospel/jazz flair, a testament to her talent as a musician in her own right.
Burrell's ascent brought great critical praise, and she was dubbed by some as "this generation's Ella Fitzgerald," certainly a tremendous honor being compared to one of jazz's all-time vocal interpreters. Burrell deflected that comparison, attributing her voice's jazzy quality to vocal maturity and experience and admonishing aspiring gospel vocalists to develop their own voice to use for God's purpose rather than mimicking greats from the past.
Because of her diverse musical talent, Burrell performed with popular artists such as Harry Connick Jr., Missy Elliot, and Stevie Wonder. In an interview with XM Satellite Radio, Connick Jr. gave Burrell a stamp of approval as the ultimate artist: "If she is not the greatest musical mind I've ever been around, she is certainly up at the top of the list." But despite those opportunities to sing with many top hit makers, Burrell's own recording path was marred by several snags that started with the demise of Tommy Boy Gospel and continued with ill-fated deals with other labels.
When Tommy Boy Gospel folded in 2002, Burrell was signed to Elektra, which was building its gospel roster with artists such as Yolanda Adams and Karen Clark-Sheard. But Burrell only performed one song for that label, the all-star collaboration with Adams, Missy Elliot and Karen Clark-Sheard, "Higher Ground," that appeared on Elliot's Miss E...So Addictive & Clark-Sheard's 2nd Chance. Around the same time period, a much anticipated Bad Boy Entertainment gospel compilation featuring Burrell singing "Special Place" was also shelved. When Burrell joined Sony Gospel in 2006, the label soon merged with Columbia Records leaving Burrell lost in the shuffle once again.
Business misfortunes have led to the career downfall of many critically acclaimed artists. Fortunately for all of her loyal fans, Burrell remained gainfully employed with plenty of guest recording appearances in both gospel and secular industry. Some memorable moments include a duet with one of her two major influences - Shirley Caesar - on "We Praise You Lord;" the New Orleans-flavored "All These People" with Connick Jr.; the positive message-laden "3-Way Phone Call" featuring R. Kelly & Kelly Price; and a jazz/soul twist in a duet with current label mate George Clinton on a remake of George Clinton's original Atomic Dog-like funk take of "Mathematics of Love." In addition, Burrell performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theatre for a show entitled "A Gospel Christmas" in December of 2008. This was an astounding feat, since Jazz at Lincoln Center programs are usually reserved for the traditional jazz repertoire. Now, after a nine year hiatus, Burrell's latest solo recording has finally come to fruition, via No Ways Tired, her Shanachie Records debut. And, on most counts, it was worth the wait.
No Ways Tired focuses on familiar hymns of the church with that jazz/soul aftertaste most have come to expect from Burrell's solo work. It is hard to pick and choose from the twelve selections because of her vocal prowess on each track, but there are some instances that immediately captured my attention.
On "Prelude," Burrell opens the disc by paying homage to Stevie Wonder - a major influence in her career -- delivering a nimble vocal arrangement based on Wonder's Sir Duke - a tribute to modern jazz great Duke Ellington; "Happy" incorporates the chorus from Vitamin C's pop charmer "Put A Smile On Your Face" while dropping hints of the children's' sing-along favorite "If You're Happy & You Know It;" "No Ways Tired," the James Cleveland classic, is transformed into a moderately funky Take 6-ish vocal workout; and on the George & Ira Gershwin Broadway show-stopper "Someone To Watch Over Me," Burrell succeeds in changing the original intention of the song from a romantic to a spiritual relationship. Considering Burrell's extreme vocal depth, this song selection also works in her favor. Burrell and co-producer Chris Davis's earthy arrangement of "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" has that Wonder vibe written all over - from the joyful lead vocals to the harmonica solo and fills. Finally, Burrell's original composition, "Jesus (Reprise)," conveys a simple prayer to God with an underlying blues sensibility.
Noticeably absent on No Ways Tired are mass choir call and responses or over the top praise and worship. Instead, the tasteful arrangements of the disc provide a revitalizing new look at gospel standards. In the process, Burrell's magnetic vocal personality remain one-hundred percent her own, with her never striving to be the next Ella or any other jazz diva. Through her newest work Burrell continues to serve as a mentor to those young gospel singers in the wings trying to mesh spirituality and various musical styles while maintaining their own individual style and vocal integrity. Highly Recommended.
By Peggy Oliver