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Monday, November 30, 2009

Alberta Hunter: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 1


1) He's A Darn Good Man (To Have Hanging 'Round); 2) How Long, Sweet Daddy, How Long; 3) Bring Back The Joys; 4) Some Day Sweetheart; 5) Down Hearted Blues; 6) Why Did You Pick Me Up When I Was Down; 7) Gonna Have You — Ain't Gonna Leave You Alone; 8) Daddy Blues; 9) Don't Pan Me; 10) After All These Years; 11) I'm Going Away Just To Wear You Off My Mind (take 1); 12) I'm Going Away Just To Wear You Off My Mind (take 2); 13) Jazzin' Baby Blues (take 1); 14) Jazzin' Baby Blues (take 2); 15) You Can't Have It All; 16) Lonesome Monday Morning Blues; 17) Come On Home; 18) You Shall Reap Just What You Sow; 19) T'Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness; 20) If You Want To Keep Your Daddy Home; 21) Bleeding Hearted Blues; 22) Chirping The Blues.

Blues queens of the 1920s generally fall into three categories. There are the Power Gals, whose trick is to overwhelm the listener with superhuman strength and passion — could be just brute force, like Ma Rainey, or mixed with subtlety, as in the case of Empress Bessie, but power and aggression are the key in all cases. Then there are the Hooligans, like Mamie Smith or Lucille Hegamin, who sound like screechy, sexy, mischievous schoolgirls that are out there to have a very naughty time, above everything else. These ones sound more dated today, but are a terrific reflection of the swingin' era none the less.

Then there's the third, initially least noticeable, but eventually recognizable category: the stately, no-bull "Ladies of the Blues", those that generally avoid the more salacious, wang-wangy side of the blues, and try to push it closer to the white crooners of the day. Among these, Alberta Hunter was arguably the leader. The approach did not pay off well: history generally prefers those who like to take a little risk, and it is possible that Hunter's name would have been wiped off the slate entirely — and unjustly — had she not had the luck of getting a "comeback" chance in her late years, the only blues queen of younger days to actually record and perform live for a bewildered generation five or six decades removed from her golden age.

As it is, she has a slightly better chance to appear on the pages of musical encyclopaedias than, say, Ethel Waters, and this is good news, since these early tunes are quite enjoyable. The first volume of Complete Recorded Works collects all of the records cut for, first, the Black Swan label and then Paramount, who lured her over with a better contract after the initial two singles, in 1921-1923, along with a couple well-preserved alternate takes. Sound quality is tolerable — you get to hear not only the voice, but the musical accompaniment as well, generally provided on the piano by the notorious Fletcher Henderson. (The Complete Recorded Works series never bother much about removing any hiss-and-scratch, though, so do not expect Fletcher Henderson to be the only accompaniment).

Connoisseurs of Bessie Smith will undoubtedly recognize some of her own later standards — 'Down Hearted Blues', 'T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness', and 'Bleeding Hearted Blues' are all here, and as much as Bessie makes them her own, Alberta's renditions, although more "croony" and generic in tone and arrangement, are quite worth hearing as well (not to mention the trifling fact that 'Down Hearted Blues' was actually written by her). Adhering closely to the respectable stan­dards of ladies' conduct, she allows but tiny drops of overt sentiment; you have to get past the con­ven­tionalities of the genre to get at the "heart" behind it, and if you do not succeed, you are not to be blamed — I myself find the superficial trappings more enticing than the essence, and have a hard time rethinking that.

Still, in between her lovely and rather idiosyncratic voice, Henderson's tasteful and inventive piano playing, and generally well-chosen blues (or, rather, "vaudeville-blues") standards, these early records are fine party-poppers, with only the cracks and hisses threatening to turn them into party-poopers. Thumbs up.

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