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Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’ 



Jessye Norman — Roots: My Life, My Song
08 Nov 2010

Jessye Norman — Roots: My Life, My Song

A career of the highest stature earns the professional the right to do as she or he pleases, after decades of dedicated achievement.

Jessye Norman — Roots: My Life, My Song

Sony 88697 64263 2 [2CDs]

$18.49  Click to buy

So when Jessye Norman decides she wants to celebrate her non-classical musical inspirations in live sets, fans and not-so-much fans can enjoy or not enjoy, but no one should really question the artist’s right to choose this avenue for expression. It does strike your reviewer as just a touch odd that Ms. Norman has decided to title her Sony collection “Roots: My Life, My Song.” Somewhere in two discs of music encapsulating her life and song, shouldn’t a listener find acknowledgment of the central role Schubert and Strauss have played, just to name two great composers through whose work Ms. Norman has shared her artistry for the bulk of her career?

Instead, Ms. Norman’s life and song derive from gospel and such classic songwriters as Harold Arlen and Duke Ellington. In a series of popular chanson, we do get the “Habanera” from Carmen, in a decidedly non-Bizet setting. Mostly, we hear Ms. Norman in lighter voice, her vocal styling paying tribute to esteemed popular singers such as Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. When the rich, darker shadings of her instrument do appear, Norman’s technique brings to mind a bit of late Sarah Vaughan - perilous drops into chest voice and sudden swoops upward, almost into a falsetto. The vocal performances manage the odd trick of always sounding like Norman, and yet constantly evoking one of these other performers in style and technique - which brings another complexity to understanding the title Ms. Norman chose. Many of these tracks feel like her tribute to other’s lives, and their songs.

Disc one opens with African drums, probably as a setting for the African-American historical heritage behind the several gospel songs that follow, sung with exquisite tone, although Ms. Norman does try to “rough it up” a bit from time to time. Why she suddenly swerves into an over-the-top, full-voiced rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story will have to remain Ms. Norman’s secret. After that misstep, she starts in on several numbers from the Great American Songbook, with a tasty ensemble of jazz players behind her. Disc two starts with the French songs, then centers on Duke Ellington before wrapping things up with an exultant “When the Saints Go Marching In.” As Ms. Norman truly settles into the live set, her peals of laughter often ring out over the sounds of audience applause. Everyone is having a very good time.

Her back-up musicians deserved more booklet notice than the small print credits they receive. Instead, pages of the booklet are given over to Ms. Norman’s prose stylings (“Whereas this may well be true, I think rather differently”) and her comments on the selections. Well, it’s her life, her songs, her CD. It needs no recommendation for fans, of course, but many others may find themselves enjoying this odd but endearing collection as well.

Chris Mullins

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