||"Compared to What"
||"Do What You Gotta Do"
You may know Roberta Flack these days as a staple on the lite
FM radio stations heard in all your favorite grocery stores, cab
rides and soap opera make-out scenes. It's hard to remember that
there was actually time when Flack was at the vanguard of the
soul jazz movement which was exploding out of the East Coast some
37 years ago. First Take and Chapter Two are probably
some of the finest examples of this kind of music, and only selected
works by Nina Simone and frequent Flack collaborator Donnie Hathaway
can actually match up to the quality of these two albums here.
Flack was a young, classically trained pianist who was a schoolteacher
by day, and similarly to Nina Simone, an aspiring concert pianist
by night. Like Simone, Flack soon discovered how hard it was for
a young black woman to be taken seriously as a classical player.
So out of necessity, she began to sing and she added jazz, gospel
and soul tunes to her repertoire in order to secure more gigs.
She soon established a residency in a prominent DC opera house
bar, and it was there that she was discovered by jazz legend Les
McCann. Legendary producer Joel Dorn was so blown away by her
live performance that he signed her and immediately booked a session
with a band, recording her singing 30 tunes from her repertoire
in a single 10 hour session. Ten of those songs ended up comprising
Flack's 1969 debut album, appropriately titled First Take.
One thing that immediately stands out about this extraordinary
album is how sparse and intimate it sounds. There were no overdubs,
and on certain songs you can actually here the hiss of the recording
mics during the dramatic pauses. Highlights include her devastating
rendition of Leonard Cohen's "That's No Way to Say Goodbye,"
the subversively jaunty version of Eugene McDaniel's "Compared
to What," and an Antony & the Johnsons' live staple,
"Ballad of the Sad Young Men." Oh yeah, "The First
Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is also on here and yes, it's
that version! But before you let out a collective groan, you have
to hear it in context of the album, and keep in mind that this
song didn't become a hit until 1972, three years after this album's
release and two years after Chapter Two.
Chapter Two was released less than a year later, and once
again we hear Flack tear through some incredible covers, this
time with a little more string and horn arrangements, courtesy
of the legendary producer Eumir Deodato and Donnie Hathaway. The
record may not be as devastating from start to finish as its predecessor,
but some of her best work is contained on here, which includes
a reworking of Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" and Buffy
St. Marie's "Until It's Time for You to Go." Like Simone,
Flack's repertoire consisted of slightly melancholy, bittersweet
songs with underlying themes of control, be it emotional, social
or spiritual. But when we talk about song approach and vocal technique,
here's where the comparisons ends. Flack's voice is pure, feminine
and melodious, with very little in the way of the inflections
one associates with jazz and gospel singers. She holds long notes
and seems almost detached, like Miles Davis in his Kind of
Blue period. A good example of this comparison would be in
Flack's rendition of Jim Webb's "Do What You Gotta Do,"
which Simone also sang. Where Simone's approach is one of underlying
indignation and anger, there isn't any anger in Flack's voice,
as much as there is an uncomfortable resignation of acceptance
and sadness, willingly showing the sort of vulnerability that
Simone would always attempt to mask.
Flack grew increasingly more pop and soul oriented and fell into
the adult contemporary style of music that she writes and performs
to this day. Although her voice still sounds phenomenal and some
of her pop R&B of the '70s was very good, she never made anything
as compelling as these couple of records. I've heard Joel Dorn
speak of Flack as a good vocalist when she was happy, and a great
vocalist when she was sad. I guess you could say that about Simone
and Hathaway as well, but I'm sure that after seeing Simone become
an angry recluse, and her longtime collaborator and friend Hathaway
succumb to mental illness, Flack probably isn't as compelled to
get as emotionally naked on wax as she has in the past. But these
records do truly stand as some of the best soul music produced
at that time. Consider these albums essential. [DH]