Review: Ann Savoy & Her Sleepless Knights- Black Coffee
Ann Savoy is known for her work with the Savoy Family Band and the Savoy-Ducet Band, two of the the best modern-day practitioners of Cajun music. But on Black Coffee, to be released by Memphis International Records July 6, Savoy explores other areas of music, namely the European jazz of the ’30s and ’40s and the female blues singers of the same era. The music on the album sounds like a singer from the same era as Billie Holiday being backed up by the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the legendary band that featured Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. Savoy’s sensual singing is wonderful on the album, but Her Sleepless Knights end up stealing the show on most tunes.
The album begins with “I Cried for You”, an American pop standard recorded by countless artists, but its most notable version is by Billie Holiday. Here Savoy and company take it a little faster than Holiday’s version and fiddler Kevin Wimmer and guitarist Tom Mitchell turn in some nice solos. Savoy’s vocal performance is flawless as far as I can tell, but when you are covering Billie Holiday there is simply no way you are going to equal her performance.
“Whoah, Tillie, Take Your Time”, a Bessie Smith blues tune, follows and, in addition to Savoy’s vocal performance, the band again does a great job, especially drummer Glenn Fields. One can tell that there was either a lot of rehearsal involved here or that this group of musicians just naturally belongs together. Probably both.
Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” is the third track on the album. This is a jazz and guitar standard, but I had never heard the song with lyrics. Naturally, they are in French and I can’t understand them anyway (if it were Spanish, I could get the general idea after a few listens), but that doesn’t take away from the beauty of the vocal performance. Interestingly, this being best known as an instrumental piece, it is one of the few tracks where Savoy’s performance triumphs that of the band.
The title track is up next. It is by Wingy Manone, a one-armed New Orleans trumpeter and the song’s humorous lyrics about the need to sober up are a real highlight as is Wimmer’s fiddling.
“If It Ain’t Love” is a classic jazz tune co-written by Fats Waller. Savoy gives an amazing performance here as always and the romantic lyrics are complimented by the slow arrangement that allows plenty of room for all of the Sleepless Knights to shine.
Another Bessie Smith tune, “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon” follows and it is one of the album’s best performances. The lyrics here can only be described as a brutal break up song. However, once again, the fiddler steals the show.
The band and Savoy herself are much more subdued on the next track, “My Funny Valentine,” a Rodgers-Hart tune that has been recorded by over 600 artists. However, according to the press release, Frank Sinatra’s version was what Savoy drew her inspiration from. The track features only one solo and for the most part Mitchell’s guitar is the only instrument heard. But still, it is one of the best tracks on the record.
I previously told you that I do not speak the French language, but that doesn’t stop my enjoyment of “C’est Chanson Est Pour Vous”, a tune by Django Reinhardt and Jean Sablon, especially since this one is much more of a band workout with Wimmer and Mitchell performing competing solos that are among the best on the album.
Next up is “If You Were Mine”, another Billie Holiday cover that is given an excellent performance here. In the spirit of the classic jazz sides of the ’30s and ’40s the band gets a chance to show off for a full minute and a half before Savoy begins singing.
“New Orleans Blues” is a cover of Blue Lu Barker and it features maybe the most non-European sounding arrangement by the band. The results land somewhere between Paris, New Orleans, and the pop music of the era, but it is great nonetheless. Lyrically, the song is in the same vein as “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon”. Fields’ drumming is again superb.
“Embraceable You”, written by George and Ira Gershwin (speaking of which, Brian Wilson will be releasing an album of Gershwin tunes later in the year . I haven’t heard anything from it yet and therefore, I don’t know if it will be any good, but I figured you may like to know that), is likely the best known song here. Like “My Funny Valentine”, it is performed in a mostly stripped-down arrangement (more stripped-down, because the whole album is pretty stark) and as a duet with guitarist Tom Mitchell. Mitchell displays a pleasant, if not extraordinary, voice singing his verse in English followed by Savoy’s verse in French.
The album ends with “J’attendrai”, another Django Reinhardt tune. Savoy is clearly singing whatever it is she is singing about with passion and I think I detect a hint of melancholy in the first verse, but that’s as far as I can figure it out (maybe I need to learn French before their next album). Regardless, the band is again the real highlight here.
This album takes the listener back to the time when pop, jazz, and blues which all moved into far different directions in later decades were very close and often identical to one another. This was after the initial Delta blues period when the genre went to the city and jazz was just beginning to gain widespread popularity, and both genres, briefly, hoped for mainstream success.
Of the three, blues is the only one I can listen to in its current form. As we all know, pop slowly but surely went from Frank Sinatra to Miley Cyrus, while I don’t really care for the jazz music made after the creation of bop (although as a saxophone player myself, I have to respect guys like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane). I realize that much of it is considered great and I recognize the talent of many jazz musicians, but the music itself is just not for me. This album is a fine example of all three genres and it would make an excellent introduction for those of you who only know of the “Great American Songbook” through watered-down Rod Stewart arrangements and phoned-in vocals.