Sunday, August 30, 2009

August 30: Roberta Flack, "First Take"

Artist: Roberta Flack
Album: First Take
Year: 1969
Label: Atlantic

As has been documented again and again, it is most often the artists who dare to be brave and break from the normal musical styles that become legends. Whether it be through new techniques or simply taking a new approach to a time-honored style, innovation, when done properly, nearly always yields fantastic results. Blending together the heartfelt singing style of the soul genre with the more subdued mood of jazz, Roberta Flack stands as one of the most uniquely amazing vocalists in the history of music. Often times sounding almost more folk-like in her singing than the more common style of soul singing, Flack's vocals never cease to be completely captivating and moving. Whether performing with her small, jazz-based backing band, a string section, or simply Flack singing with little to no accompaniment, she never fails to be anything short of phenomenal, and her entire recorded catalog is something to be treasured. While she may be best known for her 1971 hit, "Killing Me Softly With His Song," it is Roberta Flack's stunning 1969 debut, First Take, that stands as her finest album, and it is far and away one of the most sensational performances ever committed to recorded tape.

One of the biggest factors in the brilliant sound found on First Take is the work of one of the greatest producers in the history of Atlantic Records, Joel Dorn. Dorn was responsible for signing Bette Midler among others, and he produced countless records for artists like Lou Rawls and Leon Redbone. On this album, Dorn finds a way to make Flack's vocals stay very far forward in the mix, yet somehow, they do not appear to be separated from the rest of the music. He also experiments a bit in exactly "how" the vocals sound, as can be heard with the slightly distorted vocals on "I Told Jesus." Even with all this amazing work, the album itself took nearly three years to catch on with the general public. However, when it finally did get exposure, the record quickly became a massive success, and Flack was forever a musical superstar. The combination of Flack's brilliant vocals and Dorn's fantastic production work sent First Take all the way to the top spot on the U.S. charts, and the single "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" topped the singles chart, as well as winning a Grammy for "Record Of The Year" in 1973. Aside from the hit single, there are three other tracks that stand out from the rest of the album for a variety of reasons. First Take's lead song and single, "Compared To What" stands apart from the rest of the record due to it's overall mood and tempo. Far more upbeat, and almost swinging, while it is a fantastic song, it is nothing like the rest of the more moody, more quiet album. While the final of these three tracks will be explored later, one must also note that First Take also shows Flack's ability to adapt to various singing styles, from formal singing to the almost poetry reading mood of the socially aware song, "Tryin' Times." Performing the entire song in Spanish, "Angelitos Negros" is a blend of soul, accentuated with the Spanish overtones and is like nothing else ever recorded. The albums' liner notes make a comment on this song, stating that, "In performance, the song is introduced by Miss Flack as follows: Painters, why do you always paint white virgins? Paint beautiful black angels." Throughout the eight tracks on First Take, Flack and her backing band are never anything short of superb, and the record is a true sonic masterpiece.

When one examines the backing band that Roberta Flack has in studio for First Take, the fact that the album clearly blurs the line between soul and jazz becomes quite understandable. Handling bass duties is none other than jazz legend, Ron Carter. By far one of the most influential and heavily recorded bass players in history, Carter brings the perfect combination of soul and groove, whilst simultaneously being the key to the "cool" mood that pervades the entire record. Primarily featured on the albums' opening track, "Compared To What," the horn section that backs Flack is simply perfect throughout the entire album. Having been a key player in Count Basie's orchestra, trumpet player Joe Newman is able to perfectly deploy his "punch" as well as playing in a more restrained, soulful manner throughout First Take. The dual saxophones of Frank Weiss and Seldon Powell provide a fantastic compliment to Newman's sound, and the duo work flawlessly with one another. Drummer Ray Lucas, much like Flack, finds a way to make these soulful songs retain their emotion, whilst simultaneously possessing a clearly jazz based swing. The combination fo Roberta Flack's sensational vocals and her fantastic backing band help to make First Take one of the most amazing musical fusions ever, and there has never been another album of similar stature.

The key aspect that sets Roberta Flack's voice apart from the rest is her ability to be just as powerful and commanding as her peers, but whilst singing far more quietly. While she clearly has every bit of vocal strength as Aretha Franklin, and all of the raw honesty of Nina Simone, there has simply never been another singer to mix the two styles as brilliantly as Flack. Capable of nailing every note across the musical spectrum, her voice soars on every song, and the heavy emotion on every song is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Throughout First Take, Roberta Flack croons and cries, and the emotion she delivers on every track is simply stunning. It is largely due to her vocals that the album itself is often more akin to the sounds of folk singing as opposed to what was considered to be the soul style, as Flack sings slowly and clearly, and finds no need to get loud to convey her emotions. The final of the trio of songs (mentioned earlier) that must be noted is Flack's brilliant cover of Leonard Cohen's, "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye." While it must first be noted for how absolutely stunning the cover is, it is also significant as the original version had only been released a year or so earlier. This choice and performance further Flack's more "folk" sound, yet there is not a moment anywhere on First Take that lacks the true essence of soul singing, and the album never falls short of anything less than stunning.

Even the most time honored genres need change over time, and this is often only done by the most talented and brave performers in the history of music. Daring to experiment or put their own, unique spin on a style, blending new sounds together is one of the most amazing things a musician can do when it works successfully. While psychedelic rock was all the rage as the 1960's came to a close, the soul movement was similarly in full swing. Taking the essence of the soul sound and fusing it together with a far quieter, more jazz based sound, Roberta Flack forever changed the musical landscape with her extraordinary voice and performance style. By far one of the most captivating and sincere performers in the history of music, Flack truly rewrote the books on "how" soul singers could perform, and proved that nearly any other genre, when properly approached, could be presented in a stunning, soulful style. Often coming off as more folk than soul, Flack's voice ranks among the most pure and honest that the world has ever experienced, and the songs found on First Take are just as mesmerizing and magnificent as they were upon their release, just over forty years ago. While she may not have the immediate name recognition of Aretha, Nina, or Gladys, Roberta Flack is easily one of the most phenomenal vocalists in the history of music, and her 1969 debut album, First Take, remains an astonishing testament of her ability and is one of the most incredible records ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Compared To What," "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," and " The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

1 comment:

JD said...

I heard her cover of "Hey, that's no way to say goodbye" on the radio the other night, and almost fell onto the floor. Needless to say, I immediately went out and bought the cd. Incredible.