Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Roberta Flack – First Take

Roberta Flack is one of most captivating personalities among jazz singers from late sixties to the present. Her flexible performing style and strong ideological stance made difficult to define artist’s position which is in fact somewhere on crossroads of jazz, R&B, folk and soul music. In her childhood she studied music and intended to be classical pianist. And she early gained enough professional proficiency, to be awarded with full music scholarship. As 15 years old pianist she became youngest student in the history of Howard University. But career of classical music virtuoso was not her destiny. Born in Black Mountain, North Carolina and raised in Arlington, Virginia, she was experiencing African-American music in Baptist Church where she heard Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke.
During studies in Howard University, she switched to vocal class and quickly she achieved first successes as singer and as conductor’s assistant in academic choir. In next few years she was trying to reconcile teaching and artistic activities, but her career has developed rapidly on the basis of popular music. Singing and playing in clubs on Washington, D.C. she became fairly well known and at that point Les McCann heard her. He planned next visit in summer 1968 and heard her performing in a benefit concert for the Ghetto Children’s Library. This was so much important and inspiring, he decided to arrange her audition for Joel Dorn, producer in Atlantic Records. On first studio audition she recorded 42 songs in 3 hours. Next 39 demo songs she recorded in November 1968. In ten hours session on February 24-26, 1969 Roberta Flack with group of jazz musicians recorded her debut album First Take.

Roberta Flack – First Take (1969)

Roberta Flack sings and plays piano interpreting songs in a way close to modern tradition of Billie Holliday. She sometimes giving some instrumental solo, but this is never as much important as the song. In some songs group is enlarged with strings and brass. The foundations of the group are bassist Ron Carter, John Pizzarelli playing guitars and Ray Lucas on drums. This cameral lineup made wide open space for vocals. And Roberta Flack knows how to seduce and control the listener’s ability to concentrate and feeling the music.
Sometimes she is subtle like Ella Fitzgerald, sometimes she moves towards the blues and jazz tradition in the way reminding some older Nina Simone’s songs. Passionate vocals and discreet piano is just one of the attitudes, it can deeply remain in memory but certainly it’s not the only one. Delighted with her music Les McCann wrote in linear notes “Roberta possesses, both as a singer and a pianist, that rare quality which carries the listener beyond every barrier as though it never existed, to that level at which all humans can truly hear”.
Listening to this album, it is clearly readable, how much she is seriously engaged, maybe sometimes angry and critical, but more often sustainable and secure of her rights and uncompromising on issues of minority rights. This attitude perfectly matched the dominant moods in academia and in the arts of late sixties, but in seventies became somewhat unfashionable. And Roberta Flack’s debut album was not really recognized until Clint Eastwood used her performance of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face as background for love scene in his movie Play Misty for Me. In 1973 this song won for Roberta Flack Grammy Record of the Year Award.

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