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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1605

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Robin McKelle: Mess Around
by George Graham

(E1 Entertainment 2098 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/28/2010)

With the commercial success of Norah Jones, there has been a flurry of what I call chanteuse style recordings, female vocalists with a jazzy, vaguely romantic style, and who generally eschew the rockier or bluesier influences. That has extended into the straight-ahead jazz world where it seems that almost every other jazz release is by a woman singer.

This week we have an interesting departure from the mold -- it's a new recording by a vocalist who was previously into more classic style jazz and ballads who this time came out with a self-produced CD whose principal influences are soul and blues, but still with a jazz approach. It's Robin McKelle, whose new release is called Mess Around

Robin McKelle is originally from Rochester, New York. She began singing in R&B bands at age 15 after hearing her mother who sang in church choruses. In addition to her singing, she took up piano and French horn, and went on to study jazz at the University of Miami in the mid 1990s, and then went on to graduate from the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1999. She moved to the West Coast and worked as a backing vocalist with such performers as Michael McDonald and Bebe Winans. She returned to Boston where she taught at Berklee, and in 2004 won a prize in the Thelonious Monk jazz competition.

She released her first album, Introducing Robin McKelle in 2006, and followed that two years later with Modern Antique both of which hewed toward the big band jazz style. She has developed a following in Europe, especially in France. But she always loved some of the great soul and blues singers like Ray Charles, Etta James and Nina Simone. So given an opportunity to produced the album herself, she gathered some musical friends, along with some luminaries like Fred Wesley, James Brown's trombonist, for some arrangements, and jazz sax great Houston Person for a couple of guest appearances.

What makes this CD interesting, in addition to the great playing, is the material. While many jazz-influenced singers ply their skills on standards, Ms. McKelle includes a mix of original songs -- five out of the eleven -- with cover tunes from quite diverse sources, including songs by the Bee Gees, Leonard Cohen, Willie Dixon and the Beatles, as well as classic R&B standards like Cry Me a River and Lonely Avenue. Some of the familiar songs are completely transformed

The backing musicians are mainly jazz players, including pianists Alain Mallet, and Xavier Davis and organist Adam Klipple. Plus bassist Tim Lefevbre and drummer Mark McLean. There are as many as five horn players on some songs, and as mentioned tenor saxophonist Houston Person is featured on two tracks. Also appearing is guitarist Martin Sewell, who has worked with Cassandra Wilson.

Ms. McKelle has a distinctive voice that defies easy categorization. She's not a blues-shouter, nor is she the sultry torch singer. But she is versatile and often energetic, and is obviously enjoying the sinking her teeth into this material.

The CD opens with its title piece, an original song called Mess Around. Ms. McKelle said she consciously went for a Ray Charles-influenced sound. Lyrically, the song is a kind of classic blues-soul consideration of the faithfulness of one's lover. <<>>

By its sound, one might not be able to tell that the following track, I Can't See Nobody is an old Bee Gees song. Though the material is not as strong as elsewhere on the album, it's a nice performance, with the arrangement by Fred Wesley. <<>>

One of the most creative covers is of Leonard Cohen's song of cynicism, Everybody Knows. It's reworked as a upbeat soul treatment, with Ms. McKelle and pianist Alain Mallet doing the arrangement. <<>>

In a rather different mood is an original song, Angel, done in a more standard jazz setting. Ms. McKelle said she wrote the song in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. <<>>

Another highlight of the album is Ms. McKelle's very creative reworking of the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby. She and the band transform it into a mixture of salsa and funk. <<>>

While there are some creative and unexpected arrangement like Eleanor Rigby, the CD contains a couple of songs that are warhorses of the genre. Arthur Hamilton's Cry Me a River, is rather nicely done, but there's not much very original about it, compared to the rest of the album. <<>>

On the other hand, another familiar blues standard, Willie Dixon's I Just Want to Make Love to You is transformed from a raw Chicago blues song into something cool and jazzy. <<>>

The CD ends with another bit of a surprise. An original song called Since I Looked in Your Eyes, takes a turn toward country. Guitarist Martin Sewell plays something that sounds like a Dobro. <<>>

Robin McKelle's new CD Mess Around is an interesting and engaging alternative to the abundance of chanteuse style female vocalists. Ms. McKelle, previously known mainly as a jazz singer, turns to soul and classic R&B for influence doing some old songs, original music, and creative reworkings of songs not usually associated with this style. She's a distinctive and appealing vocalist who seems right at home with this material, which she delivers with a combination of enthusiasm and a jazzy cool. The band, comprising mainly jazz players, is first-rate, and the arrangements, many by Ms. McKelle herself, serve to make this CD so engaging.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. Most of the instrumentation was well recorded, and the dynamic range is not too badly damaged by excessive volume compression, but I'm not enthusiastic about the recorded sound of Ms. McKelle's vocals, which sound as if they were treated to emulate a little of the distortion of old analog equipment. The recording and mix engineer is long-time veteran Joe Ferla.

With so many jazzy women singers on the scene, Robin McKelle stands out with her new CD Mess Around.

(c) Copyright 2010 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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