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Monday, December 28, 2009

Alberta Hunter: Amtrak Blues


1) The Darktown Strutters Ball; 2) Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out; 3) I'm Having A Good Time; 4) Always; 5) My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More; 6) Amtrak Blues; 7) Old Fashioned Love; 8) Sweet Georgia Brown; 9) A Good Man Is Hard To Find; 10) I've Got A Mind To Ramble.

In 1954, Alberta Hunter quit show business for good — or so it seemed — and embarked on a nursing career instead, for a bunch of personal reasons (such as shock from her mother's death) and some objective ones — such as not really being needed in the business any longer. For more than twenty years, she did nothing but nursing, with just a couple spontaneous guest appearances on recordings by «old artists», e. g. the somewhat uncomfortably titled Songs We Taught Your Mother project from 1961, where she sang together with Lucille Hegamin and Victoria Spivey, being unquestionably the biggest star of the three.

In 1977 her hospital promptly gave Alberta her walking papers, probably expecting the lady to dine with Bessie Smith any day now — ironically, this turned out to be one of the most conveni­ent firing events in history, as it prompted Hunter to try out the stage once more. Too old to nurse, too young to die, just the right age to perform, she thought, so she started trying out various pla­ces in the Village — wisest choice of all possible ones — and ended up with a triumphant come­back, first on stage, then on film (in Robert Altman's Remember My Name), finally on record, signed to Columbia and releasing four albums before finally kicking it in 1984.

The only one that is still easy to find today is Amtrak Blues from 1980, ten songs from Alberta's deep-reaching back catalog (odd enough, though, only 'Old Fashioned Love' overlaps with her 1920s recordings) that Columbia wisely let her record with the Gerald Cook quartet (a band of pros almost as seasoned as Alberta herself) rather than any unexperienced young whippersnap­pers: as a result, the sound is fully authentic and never «retro».

On its own, Amtrak Blues is a pretty little jazz-blues collection that makes up for excellent back­ground music. But it goes without saying that it is not the kind of album that should really be ap­preciated «on its own». The point is that it is an album from 1980, recorded by an artist whose date of birth is usually given as 1895 — if, «on its own», it were barely listenable, it would still have been a priceless historical document, but if, «on its own», it is enjoyable, it is nothing less than a historical masterpiece.

Of course, Hunter's voice now sounds like an old woman's voice is supposed to sound: deep, cro­aking, gruff, a far cry from the gallant silkiness of her old records (at least, what frequencies of that gallant silkiness one can still make out from behind the wall of hiss). But then she is not sin­ging opera, she is groaning the blues, and this age-bound change gives her the same kind of grit that, in the 1920s, actually defined her competition — like Ma Rainey or Memphis Minnie. Now, in the Reagan era, it makes her the last remaning spokesperson for all these ladies; she is more than Alberta Hunter, she is Blues Queen Incarnate.

And she does sing well — not just «well for someone over 80», but «well for anyone who sings the blues». She charms you with her slyness, such as, for instance, starting out slow and cool on the first verse of 'The Darktown Strutters' Ball' before charging up the tempo and inviting every­one to bop along as if 'old age' were a purely psychological concept (which it is). Even on the si­nuous double entendre numbers — such as 'My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More' — there is no trace of the ridiculous. Certainly, no one can stop the skepticist from complaining about lines like 'he churns my butter' coming from the lips of an octogenarian. But I would pity the skepticist, unable to feel the still young spirit behind the old body.

For most people, including myself, the evident highlight would be 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out', simply because it is the most outstanding and well-known composition on here, and because Hunter does it full justice (from Bessie's classic repertoire, she also sings 'A Good Man Is Hard To Find'; being the last of the great old divas still alive and kicking, she did a great job promoting and preserving the memory of her generation). Yet, of course, Amtrak Blues is not about individual songs — it is about the pleasures of survival against all odds, and it is so wildly successful on the intellectual level that it seriously influences the emotional level as well, and gets a decisive thumbs up from both.

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