In a powerful essay serving as liner notes for vocal dynamo Kim Nalley’s latest album Blues People, Waldo E. Martin, Jr. explains that the title refers back to an influential thesis about African American history central to Amiri Baraka’s pivotal treatise, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Baraka, he points out posits that “African Americans, as best revealed in their various highly original and widely influential musical forms, were fundamentally a Blues People.” And what he meant by that was that the blues were a “fully realized culture, or way of life, that encompasses the totality of” the African American “historical and day-to-day experiences.”
Nalley’s music – both her originals and her covers – exemplifies the Baraka thesis and its continuing relevance, and it does so with spirit, intensity and passion. This is a woman with a powerhouse voice who knows how to make it work. Blues People is an hour and a quarter of some of the finest music you’re likely to hear from a jazz singer – better make that just singer – this year.
She can take a standard like “Summertime” and after an almost cantorial opening, transform it into an eloquent ironic commentary on the plight of those who do not find summertime living all that easy. Nalley can stand up tall and make heartfelt protests against the perils to black lives in original songs like “Ferguson Blues” and “Big Hooded Black Man.”
Nor does she slight the traditions. There are the spirituals: two versions of “Trouble of the World,” one acoustic and one with organ accompaniment, and a gospel-like take on “Movin’ On Up,” the theme song from TV’s The Jeffersons.
There are the risqué, sexy barroom ballads, many identified with the giants of past years: hot versions of songs like “Sugar in My Bowl” and “Trombone Song (Big Long Sliding Thing).” There is the jazz vocal: a sultry version of “A Sunday Kind of Love,” and a medley featuring a modernist take on “Listen Here” and “Cold Duck” with a sweet bit of scatting thrown in for good measure. The album closes with a remarkably rendered “Amazing Grace,” in which Nalley emphasizes her lower vocal range, and a magnetic performance of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
Blues People is an album you don’t want to miss.
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