Patti LaBelle - Bel Hommage (2017)

Patti LaBelle
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Patti LaBelle – Bel Hommage

Oh, the travails of the modern R&B singer. Born in an era when hip-hop rules, the 20 or 30-something R&B/soul crooner or diva has to deal with the perception outlined here. You’re a singer and basically everybody doubts your ability to even adequately do the one crucial part of your job description. So, when you hear Beyonce singing “At Last,” or Lady Gaga or the late Amy Winehouse pairing with Tony Bennett, it’s not hard to view this – at least in part – as counter argument. Nothing says Vivian Green has the chops like hearing her sing “Love For Sale.”

Patti LaBelle – Bel Hommage

Oh, the travails of the modern R&B singer. Born in an era when hip-hop rules, the 20 or 30-something R&B/soul crooner or diva has to deal with the perception outlined here. You’re a singer and basically everybody doubts your ability to even adequately do the one crucial part of your job description. So, when you hear Beyonce singing “At Last,” or Lady Gaga or the late Amy Winehouse pairing with Tony Bennett, it’s not hard to view this – at least in part – as counter argument. Nothing says Vivian Green has the chops like hearing her sing “Love For Sale.”

Patti LaBelle does not have those problems. We all know that she can BLOW, and she didn’t cut Bel Hommage, her new album of jazz and Songbook standards, as an effort to remain relevant. Ok, I can see someone making the argument that a level of synergy went into including “I Can Cook Too,” but that might be also be a subtle way to pitch those Patti Pies.

“I Can Cook Too,” a high energy swinging number that entered the standard canon by way of the Broadway musical On The Town, is one of several jazz oriented numbers found on Bel Hommage. That raises another question for any R&B or rock vocalist taking on songs associated with the jazz genre. Can the singer make the transition to singing in a style that calls for a different kind of phrasing and communication with the other instrumentalists? On Bel Hommage, an entertaining if somewhat uneven project, the answer is making that transistion is not as easy as one might think – even for someone as gifted as Patti LaBelle.

First thing first. Although this is an album of Songbook standards, several of the tracks fall more into the pop than jazz standard idiom and LaBelle met that challenge. She milks the story in “Folks on the Hill” describing a married couple reminiscing on the life they lived and the children they raised in their home for maximum sentimentality, and LaBelle knows how to get every ounce of drama out of “Song for Old Lovers,” a track that is the polar opposite in that latter tune is finds her looking back on a tempestuous relationship that has mellowed as time went by.

LaBelle found challenges in the same place that R&B vocalists who revere jazz often run into them: Namely, their reverence sometimes makes them approach a number a bit too conservatively. That happens on two of the better-known jazz standards “Don’t Explain” and “Moody’s Mood for Love.” I don’t think that I’ve ever heard the vocal dynamo that is LaBelle overwhelmed by the arrangement but that’s what happened on “Don’t Explain.”

Still, LaBelle has some strong efforts on jazz numbers, including “Moanin,’” “Peel Me a Grape” and the absolutely stunning, piano and voice number “Here’s To Life.” Each prove that when is placed in a situation where she feels comfortable to fully the soulfulness and range that has become her staple as a soul singer, she is a more than adequate jazz singer.

I’ve always felt that any of the hard bop tunes associated with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were some of the earliest soul and funk songs, so, given LaBelle’s gospel and soul sensibilities, and is anyone surprised that Patti’s rendition of “Peel Me a Grape,” was fully endowed with fun and diva sass?

However, “Here’s to Life,” Bel Hommage’s final cut is the album’s strongest song. LaBelle seems liberated by the sparseness of the piano and voice arrangement. She’s conversational – singing behind the melody during the verses – and becomes her dramatic best on the chorus and bridge where she displays her explosive range. When make a version of a song that compares favorably to the likes of Shirley Horn and Barbara Streisand, you’ve done something right.

Patti LaBelle didn’t take the easy way out in her album of standards. She moved far off the beaten path on many of the tracks, and the best-known numbers were also the most challenging. Bel Hommage is not perfect, but there’s enough right here to hope that Patti takes another bite of the standards pie. Recommended

By Howard Dukes

 
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