By Brian Arsenault
Of Collapsing Boundaries
Musicians tend not to be as knot headed about musical genres as, oh say, music critics are. They listen across boundaries and take things new ways, move things new ways. Think Hendrix and Dylan, for example. Or the Isley Brothers and early Beatles.
Now come Kellye Gray and Mary Ann Redmond. Lucky us.
And They Call Us Cowboys (Grr8 Records)
I don’t know if anyone ever packed more pain into a song than Roy Orbison in “Only the Lonely.” Not only does Kellye Gray provide us a magnificent tribute to Roy in her version, she brings us her own depth of feeling that rises through the longing of the lyric.
She brings a jazz sensibility to what might be called the Texas Songbook, which is a big part of the American Songbook after all, without self consciousness or apology. She simply loves this music.
“If I Needed You” is the equal of “Only the Lonely” in depth of feeling and voice, accompanied again by York’s fine piano work. Voice and instrument both pure. Angel stuff.
I mean if she can turn “Dang Me” — familiar to most of us in Roger Miller’s usual cloying style – into a jazz tune, and she does, then Ella look out. This is a jazz singer of rare air.
Even her rendition of “In the Ghetto” pleases to a point with a deeper soulfulness and bluesy quality than the Elvis hit. Of course, by the time Elvis recorded the tune everything he did tended to sound like a movie track.
The song still has that sappy, sing-song melody but she tries, even adds a little scat but it’s probably the least successful song on the album.
Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Trough The Night” isn’t. It’s a great opening to the album done in bossa nova motif. Kellye adds an “R” rated dimension to the devilish behavior. It’s a little sexier here and Jack Langley’s guitar is as smooth as her singing.
Langley, who also co-arranged the album’s songs with Kellye, is superb throughout on both acoustic and electric guitars as are all the sidemen, Texas musicians all.
The bravest effort on the album is perhaps “Always on My Mind.” It takes some guts to take on Willie’s “anthem”, a song so closely associated with another artist that one might be tempted to just do an identical cover or not cover it at all.
Instead, she doesn’t just imitate; she brings herself to the song and by adding a “woman’s touch” that somehow makes it her own. With just a hint of Janis near the end while Langley’s electric guitar work stretches from touches of rock to deep blues.
Lyle Lovett’s so damn touching “Night’s Lullaby” provides a comforting way to bring the album home. In “sweet mother’s arms.”
Redmond Langosch Cooley
Compared to What (Redmond Langosch Cooley)
Who can do Duke Ellington, Smokey Robinson/Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Irving Berlin and Lennon & McCartney in succession and then finish up with a great song of her own authorship. Mary Ann Redmond can. Oh how she can.
Take Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” for example. This is one of the great American songs and you must treat it with care. She does, not straying terribly from the Mitchell arrangement but if Joni has chosen not to sing it for us an more, be glad that Mary Ann is here. Be glad anyway.
Move forward on the album but back decades and hear Ms Redmond easily time traveling with the Irving Berlin classic “What’ll I Do.” The song’s delicacy is safe in her hands and she pulls each note to its full beauty.
Keyboardist Jay Cooley shines here and elsewhere but no more than double bassist Paul Langosch who completes the self (last) named trio. Sitting in musicians, perhaps especially tenor sax man Bruce Swaim, complement and expand the trio’s sound.
It’s no insult to any of them to say that they wonderfully support Ms Redmond’s voice. It’s one of the great jazz voices.
Her own publicity says she is “primarily a regional artist” in the Washington DC area but that’s not quite right. She’s actually a great American artist who hasn’t been heard by nearly enough people. But if you are one who has, that’s your good fortune.
Her “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good” is a slow jazz torch song, demonstrating as so much of the album does that her comfort range for material is astounding. I’m confident that Ellington would say that’s just how it should be sung, perfect. Swaim shines again also.
Or let’s jump to Leonard Cohen’s passionate and somehow disturbing (Cohen after all) “Dance Me To The End of Love” in samba pace. Or is that tango temp by the end. The heat certainly is.
Here and so often on the album it seems that the songs were written for her.
You’ll feel that as she does the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” where she calls out for the “fool” so intensely. His anguish is fully realized.
With Mary Ann, “Fool” becomes a big song where the Beatles intentionally understated it. Both work.
Even more dangerously, she makes “Ain’t That Peculiar” bluesier than Marvin and Motown did. Motown was after all a little afraid of the blues as “race” music and cross over meant everything.
Still, Mary Ann is also just as soulful as Marvin Gaye. And that’s saying something.
So in every way she earns the right to close out the album with her own “Love Me Anyway.” I expect it to be covered again and again as it takes its place in the Songbook.
The song is about what we all want, loved with warts and all, and maybe in the end it is the most moving song on the album. After all.