This is an album that should not have worked. LaVern Baker (a fine R&B singer) was joined by all-stars from mainstream jazz (including trumpeter Buck Clayton, trombonist Vic Dickenson, tenor-saxophonist Paul Quinichette and pianist Nat Pierce) for twelve songs associated with the great '20s blues singer Bessie Smith. Despite the potentially conflicting styles, this project is quite successful and often exciting. The arrangements by Phil Moore, Nat Pierce, and Ernie Wilkins do not attempt to re-create the original recordings; Baker sings in her own style (rather than trying to emulate Bessie Smith), and the hot solos work well with her vocals.
The first major blues and jazz singer on record and one of the most powerful of all time, Bessie Smith rightly earned the title of "The Empress of the Blues." Even on her first records in 1923, her passionate voice overcame the primitive recording quality of the day and still communicates easily to today's listeners (which is not true of any other singer from that early period). At a time when the blues were in and most vocalists (particularly vaudevillians) were being dubbed "blues singers," Bessie Smith simply had no competition.
The French label Barclay Records, with which singer/songwriter Jacques Brel was associated for most of the 1960s and '70s, released a compilation of recordings of his songs in March 2004 that differs significantly from this U.S. edition. The French version of Next Brel has 15 tracks to the American 12, but that doesn't mean simply that three tracks have been deleted. In fact, there are six tracks on the French album not found on the American one: "If We Only Have Love," by Dionne Warwick; "Amsterdam," by Anne Watts; "If You Go Away," by Emiliana Torrini; "Next," by Gavin Friday & the Man Seezer; "The Desperate Ones," by Nina Simone; and "Seasons in the Sun," by Terry Jacks (a number one hit in the U.S.).