The Great American Songbook has endured a great deal of abuse in recent years. From aging rockers to pop posers, it seems just about everyone takes a crack at the standards. And why not – the songs are sturdy enough to stand up to reinterpretation, while the instantly recognizable melodies provide comfort and continuity.
With Heart And Soul, Ben E. King, still best remembered for his own standard, the immortal “Stand By Me,” takes a leisurely stroll through a baker’s dozen, with backing from a superb, hand-picked ensemble that keep proceedings firmly in the jazzier end of the musical spectrum.
Clearly a labor of love, Heart And Soul was recorded in the Calgary studios of husband-and-wife producers Lanny Williamson and Linda Nash, who assembled a fine cast of players built around the core of pianist Jon Mayer, bassist John Clayton, and drummer Roy McCurdy. They’re augmented by, among others, Guido Basso on flugelhorn, Javon Jackson and Charles McPherson on saxes, and Randy Brecker on trumpet. All provide superbly understated support, for the most part crafting almost minimal arrangements – seven tracks, in fact, feature only piano and one horn, whether sax, trumpet, flugelhorn, or trombone (the title track, courtesy of Steve Davis).
The approach leaves King’s vocals front and centre, and he responds with warmly intimate performances that fairly ooze romance. His voice isn’t quite as supple now, but the subdued support allows him to caress each line with unhurried and unforced ease, his delivery at times borders on laconic, yet never less than fully engaged in the emotional core of each tune. It’s artistry of the highest order, a seasoned pro employing the tools at hand with intelligence and taste; the goal on every tune is simplicity and clarity, and King and company hit the mark every time.
The prevailing mood throughout is wistful and contemplative melancholy, no surprise given compositions like “Since I Fell For You” and “When I Fall In Love.” There are lovely readings of “I Remember You,” “For All We Know,” and “My Funny Valentine,” while a ‘bonus’ track, “That Old Feeling,” complete with studio patter and a false start, is the disc’s closer and most energetic outing, the band finding and locking into a sweetly swinging groove. The inclusion of dialog from both sides of the glass provides a revealing glimpse into the creative process.
These are tunes, again, that can be taken many ways. King’s relaxed and elegant approach is candlelight and wine through and through, sheer elegance in every note. Wonderful stuff!