* FIRST UK REVIEW *
(5 / 5)
The album title made me wonder if Ms Collier was mates with Hank Marvin! Sorry, maybe that gag is well past its tell by date…But it is no joke that this album is a great find, and she is an artist with many layers to her talents. If you see her billed as “saxophone player Vanessa Collier,” that is factually accurate for sure, but not the sum-total of Vanessa’s skills.
She is a versatile and accomplished vocalist and a smart songwriter too, with her second album. Maryland, USA based, she’s a grafter and been hard at work on her chosen career path since early studies at Boston’s illustrious Berklee College of Music.
Her thrilling 18-month contribution to Grammy-winning blues star Joe Louis Walker’s music on international tours from 2012, got her noticed, and eventually helped her to achieve the dream of having her own album. Vanessa’s debut, “Heart Soul & Saxophone,” dropped in 2014; a smorgasbord of soul, funk, rock and blues, favourably received by fans and critics.
She was chosen as one of the ‘Best of 2014 Blues Breaker’ releases on Dan Aykroyd’s iconic House of Blues radio show. She has since been a top three finalist in the prestigious John Lennon Songwriting Competition, fought through to the 2016 International Blues Challenge finals in Memphis and shared bills with Annie Lennox, Willie Nelson and many more.
The new album, released by German blues label Ruf Records, gives us 11 tracks, songs that Vanessa says explores life’s triumphs and challenges. A collection of experiences that are as varied as the musical influences she draws from. Songs about shared struggles, empowerment and perseverance that make us feel we can overcome any of life’s obstacles. There’s lighter moments too; with witty, playful songs that celebrate the fun in our daily lives, such as “Two Parts Sugar, One Part Lime”, and “Meet Me Where I’m At”.
The first cut, “Poisoned The Well”, looks at being let down and watching someone ‘poison’ your surroundings, but also that there is a strength in acceptance of that and always staying true to yourself. “When It Don’t Come Easy”, is about perseverance and finding the strength to keep moving regardless of any obstacle. Band-leader and co-producer credits for Vanessa on this album, as well as playing flute, sax, organ, piano and lead vocals, plus percussion on the first track. Recorded in Memphis last October.
Her vocals grow in strength and versatility the further we get into this record. She gets far more soulful and natural as the tracks progress too. The material is varied and that gives her the vehicle to surprise, with a chameleon-like ability to change her vocal style song by song. But at its core is a gorgeous soulful quality. I did like the production value of not too many sax solos, and using the instrument sparingly, to add value as an extension of her voice.
She can make that sax wail, growl and cry and you can hear the attitude and emotion in the approach to the song, by the way she plays it differently on each of the tracks where she uses it. She drives songs forward with strong, edgy, unleashed attack or she can be under-stated, subtle and beautiful too.
Co-producer Kevin Houston and the top end players who were assembled for these sessions, all deserve credit for their contributions. T.K. Jackson on drums really nails the groove and there’s some blistering slide guitar work from Josh Roberts.
The absolutely stunning guitarist Laura Chavez, (who from 2008 used to play guitar and was musical director for the late blues and jazz star Candye Kane, who sadly died last May of cancer) plays an absolute blinder across this album and her work here adds two stars to the rating I give this album in my review. Such a creative player and not borrowing licks from anyone else. She sounds like a caged tiger, where you know unleashed she would really let rip. Love to hear her do her own album with guest singers and players. Such a huge find who deserves billing on the album cover, as a featured guest. Hope Thomas Ruf snaps her up for an album of her own.
Also well deserving of a mention of his background on the album credits or PR info, is Charles Hodges, the legendary Memphis organ and keyboard man you will have heard on many hits and albums by such icons as Al Green and Ann Peebles on the famed Hi Records label recorded at Willie Mitchell’s historic Royal Studios. Charles also played on records for James Carr, Albert Collins, Boz Scaggs and many more. As a songwriter, his songs have been recorded by the likes of Tom Jones, Syl Johnson and O.V. Wright. The 69-year-old is a giant among Memphis musicians and songwriters, and plays Hammond B3 organ, clavinet, piano and Wurlitzer across this album. But no mention of his legendary status on the album’s sleeve notes, credits or the PR bumph us reviewers are sent. Tut tut.
Daniel McKee on bass, Marc Franklin on trumpet and flugelhorn, Brenda Jackson organ on “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry”, Lenny Bradford on bass and Nicholas Stevens drums on the opening cut, “Poisoned The Well”.
Vanessa writes eight of the 11 cuts. She covers U2’s epic “When Love Comes To Town,” and for me the version with the late and great BB King as guest on vocals and guitar is too far indelibly etched into our memories, to allow anything else to work. Her re-worked arrangement which slows it all down, is fixing something that was not bust, too. Nice job on the rousing and speeded up cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s self-penned 1949 gospel hit, “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music In The Air)” which she recorded with Marie Knight.
Rosetta is one of my all-time favourite artists, and along with probably the greatest singer that ever lived; Mahalia Jackson, she helped shape music’s future. Rosetta to me is one of the creators of what we call Rock and Roll music; her attack on a Gibson electric guitar as of 1947 after switching from acoustic, influenced many after her. She got so famous as an artist, that in 1951, 25,000 tickets were SOLD to witness her third marriage, held in a stadium in Washington D.C. Now that is famous!
The third cover here is “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry”, written by Deadric Malone, the pseudonym of label owner, songwriter, and producer Don Robey, who owned the Duke/Peacock family of labels. This cut was a 1965 hit for other-worldly soul artist O.V. Wright. Second track, “Dig A Little Deeper,” with a James Brown funked-up feel to it. Nice light and shade provided with the next track, the laid back, stripped down “When It Don’t Come Easy,” with greasy organ brush strokes and some gorgeous acoustic slide guitar work from Josh Roberts. Vanessa’s vocal the strongest of the first three tracks and this song fits her like a glove. Bonnie Raitt flavours.
Nice groove on the old-school R&B track, “Two Parts, One Part Lime”, with a bit of raunchiness to her vocal delivery and back of the throat growl. She shows great control with her vocal delivery on “You Gonna Make Me Cry,” a song where there is no hiding place and the vocal is exposed and out front. A slow, laid back blues-soul cut and here Vanessa steps it up a gear in skill and quality. Again, at times the fabulous Bonnie Raitt comes to mind. Some astoundingly authentic soul licks on guitar from Laura Chavez on this track. The backing vocals, Vanessa’s innate lead vocal and Laura’s chilled and gifted guitar talents, plus the brilliant song-writing, make this THE track of the album for me.
Vanessa’s song “Whiskey And Women”, rocks it up, and conjures up a mental image of a boozy Saturday night at a sweaty roadhouse with chicken wire up in front of the stage, and the beer and bourbon fumes mixed with the heady aroma of people having a great time to great music. Another raunchy vocal from VC and some spine-tingling guitar from LC. New Orleans jazz grooves on “Meet Me Where I’m At”, with sizzling horns to drive it all along. Mardi Gras time.
“Cry Out”, is a really fab song, fab vocal, fab groove, deep in the pocket funky mother of a tune written by Vanessa. Again, that Bonnie Raitt thang going on in her voice, and one of the best vocals of the set. Sultry sax solo. Beautiful pulled back vocal control on the closer, “Devil’s On The Downslide”, the slow and soulful ballad written by Vanessa.
Vanessa has just been nominated for a 2017 Blues Music Award in the US, for her horn playing. She is currently on the road across Europe with the annual Ruf Records Blues Caravan package tour, “Blues Got Soul”, with Big Daddy Wilson and the UK’s Si Cranstoun; Laura Chavez on guitar and our own Roger Inniss on bass. UK audiences will get the chance to see the show when they are over here for a slew of dates in September this year. See you there…
By Simon Redley
(1 / 5) ‘Dull Zone’
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’