Album: Before Me
Artist: Gladys Knight
Label: Verve
Release Date: June 6, 2006

It's been a long, long time since R&B icon Gladys Knight rode the "Midnight Train to Georgia," her most enduring and successful single with The Pips. Before Me is her first release on the Verve label, and her first release since 2001's At Last on MCA. The "train" Ms. Knight is getting on with Before Me is that of the Great American Songbook; the litany of standards that were the pop of their day but now typically embraced by jazz vocalists. Recent riders on this "train" include Rod Stewart, Bette Midler and Michael Buble. The concept of a rock or pop singer devoting an entire album to the Great American Songbook originated in the 1980s with Linda Ronstadt's collaborations with Nelson Riddle.

The Verve label invested a significant amount of money on this excursion, co-produced by mega-Grammy winners Tommy LiPuma (George Benson, Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau) and Phil Ramone (Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett). The album's roster of guest artists and soloists is a jazz "A" list. Perhaps their expenditures are justified by the fact that now is the time to invest in the current "pop singer sings standards" fad.

The album cover art hints at what's within. Sepia-tone portraits of Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan surround Ms. Knight's color photo. They're the ones, among others, according to Ms. Knight, who "came before me and paved the way for me to be a part of this industry."

A devout born-again Christian, Ms. Knight expresses her deep religious faith on nearly every tune; but it is not proselytizing. It works. She's grateful for God's gifts and lets the listener know; that's it. File this album under jazz; not inspirational music. However those looking for it will find inspiration in the stories she tells with each tune. Ms. Knight has done a better job than most at meshing her career with her religion; playing venues that some more pretentiously pious converts wouldn't go near (she's still a big draw in Las Vegas).

Two different string orchestras back-up the major players on this album; one for LiPuma-produced cuts under the direction of John Clayton. The other string section is under the direction of Billy Childs, and appears on the Ramone-produced cuts. Both Clayton and Childs wrote their own orchestra arrangements. The sound is lush and even-handed from both orchestras, and is used judiciously by both producers throughout the album.

Those longing for the distinctive, breathy-to-the-point-of-breaking timbre of Ms. Knight's voice during her heyday with the Pips will be disappointed. However, the voice she uses throughout the album is musical, soulful, and just right for the material, as is her impeccable diction; always a plus when addressing the Great American Songbook. She still utilizes plenty of soulful outbursts, used in moderation. It's a pleasure to hear her perform what she describes as her favorites from long ago; there's a spirit about the take on each tune that's fresh and definitively soulful. The quality of her voice belies the fact that she's entering her seventh decade.

"Do Nothing 'Till You Hear From Me," is by far the least strong of the album's offerings. For some reason, it doesn't fit Ms. Knight despite the powerful musical talent backing her up. It's still a pleasant rendition of the tune. It was just peculiar to hear it as the number one cut on the album.

Knight and company fare much better on "Good Morning Heartache," which strays from Holiday's take on the song in that there's no misery involved. The singer is offering up a lesson in this version. "Someone to Watch Over Me" is filled with soulful fillips of celebration; Knight makes it an upbeat jazz "hymn." "Stormy Weather" delights with its simplicity and straight-ahead treatment.

"I'll Be Seeing You" could've well become a big old piece of cheese in less capable hands, but Billy Childs' arrangement keeps it lively. Trumpet sensation Chris Botti gives the listener a delightful musical ride on solo; and lingers, muted, in the background. The somewhat obscure "This Bitter Earth" showcases Ms. Knight's lovely diction, tells a story, and is a delightful listen. Fathead Newman's sax solo is the icing on the cake. (Ice cream cake, please, it's that cool.)

Arranger Billy Childs wrote a lovely Latin beat into his chart for "The Man I Love." This is a lush, vibrant rendition of a standard that could become stale right away. Billie Holiday's theme song, "God Bless The Child" is a bluesy, bouncy bagatelle with a definitively gospel-esque ending that adds interest. "Come Sunday" is an appropriate ending to this easy-on-the-ears album.

The beauty of this album is that it features two musical organizations, directed by two industry greats, produced by two different but highly esteemed musical legends. Jazz "newbies" will find that they'll get double-their-money's worth, by being exposed to two equally excellent but distinctive styles of music.

TRACK LISTING AND KEY PERSONNEL

1. Do Nothing 'Till You Hear From Me (Duke Ellington - Bob Russell)

Joe Sample, piano; Tamir Hendelman, Fender Rhodes; Russell Malone, guitar; Christoph Luty, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Joe Porcaro, percussion, vibes, cymbal; The Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Arranger: John Clayton. Produced by Tommy LiPuma.

2. The Man I Love (George Gershwin - Ira Gershwin)

Billy Childs, piano; Jeffrey Mironov, guitar; David Finck, bass; Mark McLean, drums; Jeff Kievit, trumpet; Tony Kadleck, trumpet; Jim Pugh, tenor trombone; George Flynn, bass trombone; Dave Mann, flute; Charlie Pillow, alto flute. Arranger: Billy Childs. Produced by Phil Ramone.

3. Good Morning Heartache (Ervin Drake - Dan Fisher - Irene Higginbotham)

Roy Hargrove, flugelhorn solo; Joe Sample, piano; Tamir Hendelman, Fender Rhodes; Russell Malone, guitar; Christoph Luty, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Joe Porcaro, percussion, vibes, cymbal; The Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Arranger: John Clayton. Produced by Tommy LiPuma.

4. Since I Fell For You (Buddy Johnson)

David "Fathead" Newman, tenor saxophone solo; Joe Sample, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; John Clayton, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. Arranger: John Clayton. Produced by Tommy LiPuma.

5. God Bless The Child (Arthur Herzog, Jr. - Billie Holiday)

Billy Childs, piano; Jeffrey Mironov, guitar; David Finck, bass; Mark McLean, drums; Jeff Kievit, trumpet; Tony Kadleck, trumpet; Jim Pugh, tenor trombone; George Flynn, bass trombone; Dave Mann, alto saxophone; Charlie Pillow, soprano saxophone. Arranger: Billy Childs. Produced by Phil Ramone.

6. This Bitter Earth (Clyde Otis)

David "Fathead" Newman, tenor saxophone solo; Joe Sample, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; John Clayton, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. Arranger: John Clayton. Produced by Tommy Lipuma.

7. I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good) (Duke Ellington - Paul Francis Webster)

Billy Childs, piano; Jeffrey Mironov, guitar; David Finck, bass; Mark McLean, drums; Jeff Kievit, trumpet; Tony Kadleck, trumpet; Jim Pugh, tenor trombone; George Flynn, bass trombone; Dave Mann, alto saxophone; Charlie Pillow, soprano saxophone. Arranger: Billy Childs. Produced by Phil Ramone.

8. Someone to Watch Over Me (George Gershwin - Ira Gershwin)

Steve Wilson, alto saxophone solo; Billy Childs, piano; Jeffrey Mironov, guitar; David Finck, bass; Mark McLean, drums; Jeff Kievit, trumpet; Tony Kadleck, trumpet; Jim Pugh, tenor trombone; George Flynn, bass trombone; Dave Mann, alto saxophone; Charlie Pillow, soprano saxophone. Arranger: Billy Childs. Produced by Phil Ramone.

9. But Not For Me (George Gershwin - Ira Gershwin)

Billy Childs, piano; Jeffrey Mironov, guitar; David Finck, bass; Mark McLean, drums. Arranger: Billy Childs. Produced by Phil Ramone.

10. I'll Be Seeing You (Sammy Fain - Irving Kahal)

Chris Botti, trumpet solo; Billy Childs, piano; Jeffrey Mironov, guitar; David Finck, bass; Mark McLean, drums; Jeff Kievit, trumpet; Tony Kadleck, trumpet; Jim Pugh, tenor trombone; George Flynn, bass trombone; Dave Mann, alto saxophone; Charlie Pillow, soprano saxophone. Arranger: Billy Childs. Produced by Phil Ramone.

11. Stormy Weather (Harold Arlen - Ted Koehler)

Tamir Hendelman, piano; Christoph Luty, bass; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums; The Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Arranger: John Clayton. Produced by Tommy LiPuma.

12. Come Sunday (Duke Ellington)

Joe Sample, piano; Christoph Luty, bass; Russell Malone, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums; The Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Arranger: John Clayton. Produced by Tommy LiPuma.

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