Toronto-based songstress Robin Banks (often billed as Miss Robin Banks to distinguish her from other folks with that name) is usually categorized as a blues singer. She’s been compared to the likes of Etta James and Dinah Washington. Those who know the current blues scene will notice that Banks’ new album Modern Classic was produced by the ubiquitous Duke Robillard in Rhode Island, and features his band, along with the Roomful of Blues horns.
But most listeners hearing Modern Classic are more likely to think jazz more than what they might associate with the Chicago or Memphis styles of the blues. True, the opening track, “A Man Is Just a Man,” evokes the early rock ‘n’ roll of the Brenda Lee and Wanda Jackson variety. “I’ll Meet You There” is pure ’60s Memphis soul. The slow ballad “A Place in the City” is a reminder of the days when record stores stocked racks of Country and Western vinyl LPs.
If you want the sho’ nuff blues, there’s the jumping “You Boogie Too Fast for Me” and “Bite Your Tongue” where the 51-year-old singer advises a potential lover, “you’re too young for me.”
But the rest of the set takes us back to the tradition of Peggy Lee, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, and Sarah Vaughan blended with the sort of West Coast jazz where a guitarist like Wes Montgomery might stop by with some smooth, fluid licks. (It’s Robillard who channels such players on Modern Classic.) For example, there’s the syncopated “Superhero” and the skatty “Really Dig You” featuring Bruce Bears tickling the ivories and Doug James and Mark Earley on sax. There’s the upbeat, good-time “Crazy,” the track selected as the first single. There’s the sexy, smoldering “My Baby Loves Me” punctuated by a soft muted trumpet (courtesy of Doug Woolverton), the bossa nova-flavored “A Little Bit of Heaven,” and the swinging “Tonight” with a spotlight on bass player Brad Hallen. (The final member of the combo is drummer Mark Teixeira.)
In short, Modern Classic is another sophisticated example of the new interest in bringing back the stylings of the American Songbook as demonstrated by recent albums from Joe Jackson and Rod Stewart. The main difference between Modern Classic and such albums is that Banks is not only a skilled songstress, she also excels at autobiographical songwriting. She wrote every track on Modern Classic. This continues her compositional work from her four previous collections, Permanent Record (1997), Honestly (2000), Live After Dark (2001), and Livin’ Life (2010). Collectively, these releases show the evolution of a performer who’s toured Europe extensively and called Texas, Jamaica, and Canada home.
So while her latest album might capture the sounds of a bygone musical era, her stories are her own. And the odds are, despite the hyperbolic title, Modern Classic should be regarded as just that and is likely to appear on many a best-of-2014 list. After all, modern classics are few and far between these days.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00OYUXX4W]