JEREMY MONTEIRO feat. JACINTHA / “A Song For You”
“A Song For You,” a song just made for Negro melodrama: screaming to show sincerity, moaning to illustrate meaning, a forced tear drop to demonstrate feeling. Is their a lounge act anywhere that has not offered this song as a finale on a weeknight gig with an audience of twelve bored-stiff conventioneers somewhere in Kansas or was it Omaha, Nebraska? Leon Russell wrote “A Song For You.” What we have here are seven versions. First up, from a former juke joint in Jackson, Mississippi, in a nightclub whose better days were thirty years ago, playing on a half-way-not-working cheesy keyboard with a drunk drummer and a bass player who can’t remember the changes is my main man, “Mr. Show And Tell,” Al Wilson. Al has decided to put a funky intro on the song a-la a down-and-out Isaac Hayes. This stuff plays real well when you’re drunk and it’s sort of embarrassing when you’re sober, but anyway, once he gets pass the intro, the song transforms into the top of a second-tier Stax-sounding soul ballad sung with polyester sincerity, i.e. this is a poor man offering up all his "riches." But then after the false start, Al gets down to singing. Over a rudimentary piano figure, suddenly he gets it and we get it too. His glorious baritone, in all its rough-sweet, hard luck glory delves into the depths of a song that ends up revealing so much of the pain of a career that never quite made the big time. Ms. Betty Wright briefly did make it to the big time. This is sort of an Al Wilson version in concert with an audience of adoring fans. (The engineers really didn’t need to keep turning up the volume on the audience sounds, we got it.) Betty’s version is probably the most well known among the forty-and-above set of Southern soul music lovers. Betty is at her best here. The band is tight. The song is a good vehicle for her, allowing her to both emote and tell a story as well as feature the high end of her multi-octave voice. Taken from the recording Betty Wright Live, this is more than just the ultimate recording from the “clean up” woman, this is actually one of the classics of Southern soul music. Third is Mr. Donny Hathaway, also in concert and also with annoying audience sounds, nevertheless Donny is sublime. This has always been not only my favorite but it has the arrangement which became the gold standard for how to do “A Song For You.” That opening descending piano arpeggio is sort of like Duke Ellington’s intro to “In A Sentimental Mood” on the recording Duke did with John Coltrane. As soon as you hear the piano ripple, you settle back and start reminiscing. Donny’s reading of the song accompanied only by his expert piano playing is almost a prayer to a dearly loved individual who is no longer there. Donny is so deep into the song that the impromptu comments from the audience don’t break the spell. He has hypnotized himself and entranced us with the emotional weight of his delivery. Aretha Franklin powers her way through her version as only “Re” can. At some moments she mangles the melody or plays cute tricks with the lyrics, but for the most part, she just leans the ampleness of her gospel-tinged voice and the weight of all of her legendary relationship failures into the lyrics and lets loose. At the end of the song, the tempo picks up and she goes into that rock steady funk that is her trademark. She’s good. She’s Aretha. Carmen McRae, on the other hand, does not have the powerful voice of an Aretha Franklin but Carmen compensates by being a master story teller. Miss McRae can turn a hackneyed lyric into a laying down of the law. Where others might simply be showboating, Carmen’s nuanced reading is mesmerizing. The big band jazz arrangement could easily have suffocated others, but it’s barely noticeable behind Carmen because Carmen is so masterful in laying out the meaning of the song. Ray Charles is next. Ray borrows Donny’s piano intro and then takes off on a typical Ray Charles performance, which is to say he is a preacher. You know what to expect when you go to his service, you’ve heard all of his techniques before but he still hooks you and makes a believer out of you even though it’s obvious from the orchestration with strings, horns and drums that this is a show piece. Finally, Singapore native Jacintha working with Singapore pianist Jerry Monteiro takes the cake with an intimate recitation that achieves more depth than all the screaming and hollering of previous versions. Jacintha sings as though she were delivering a sotto-voiced, post-coital confession into an eagerly attentive ear as she and her lover her hugged up in bed. Jeremy Monteiro is appropriately sensitive on piano, his solo extending the hush of Jacintha’s vocals. This is an impassioned duet. Superb. Monteiro shadows Jacintha’s flow, never pushing, discreet as an expert body guard. You can just see them dancing. When they end, you can still hear the purity of the notes reverberating in the silence. “A Song For You.” —Kalamu ya Salaam Not feeling the melodrama I'm just not feeling the melodrama at all. When it comes to “A Song For You,” the less screaming and yelling, the better. If I never hear Betty Wright or Al Wilson sing this song again, that'll be just fine with me. I'm a sucker for Aretha's voice, so I can't complain about that one. Nancy Wilson is the best singer I've ever heard, but Aretha is damn close second. Actually, let me go off on a tangent for a moment. I just thought of something. Nancy Wilson is known for her smoothness, for her crystal-clear vocal clarity, but when she needs to, Nancy can reach down deep and yell with the best of them. Aretha is just the opposite. She's known for her gigantic, gospel-tinged voice, but when she really needs to (I'm thinking of something like "Day Dreaming" or "Say A Little Prayer"), she can ramp it down and croon as beautifully as anyone. Anyway, back to “A Song For You.” I agree with the Donny Hathaway assessment. Donny's is the now-accepted 'classic' arrangement...at least as far as black music goes. What better endorsement can you receive than Ray Charles himself choosing to re-use your arrangement? And Kalamu is right too with the "In A Sentimental Mood" comparison. I actually thought of that myself: both musicians took well-known, well-covered tunes and re-enlivened them by adding something as simple as a brief piano line. I like the Carmen McRae version for its subtlety and complete lack of melodrama. The Jacintha is good too, but too long. Her voice is incredible—I'd like to hear more from her. In this case though, it was too much of a good thing. —Mtume ya Salaam
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