Ruthie Foster Big Band – Live At The Paramount
Blue Corn Music – 2020
14 tracks; 65 minutes
Ruthie Foster has established herself on the blues scene with a succession of fine albums, regular appearances at festivals and on the Blues Cruise but this live album captures a further stage in this talented singer’s development as she is backed by a huge band of ten horn players, a four piece rhythm section and three backing singers. The personnel are Seth Carper on alto sax, Russell Haight and Joey Colarusso on tenor, Paul Baker on baritone and bass clarinet, Eric Johnson, Adrian Ruiz and Jimmy Shortell on trumpet/flugelhorn, Jon Blondell, Michael Mordecai and Andre Hayward on trombone, Mitch Watkins on guitar, Jeff Helmer on keyboards, John Fremgen on bass and Tom Brechtlein on drums; Sheree Smith, Tamara Mack and Torri Baker are the backing vocalists. The whole band was conducted by John Mills with arrangements mainly by John Beasley. Recorded on home turf at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, the album features a selection of Ruthie’s own songs, a couple of covers and two traditional gospel tunes.
After a short introduction by daughter Maya Ruthie launches into “Brand New Day”, an original but clearly based in the gospel traditions as the song starts acapella with the band joining in for the final minute. Ruthie then introduces “Might Not Be Right”, a song she wrote with William Bell and we are straight into Memphis soul territory with a lovely, gentle arrangement. A brilliant adaptation of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” moves the familiar song from country to soul ballad before Ruthie’s own “Stone Love” which starts with a solo piano exploration before developing into a joyous soul romp with great horns and a superb vocal performance. “The Ghetto” was written by Bonnie Bramlett, Bettye Crutcher and Homer Banks and is not to be confused with Donny Hathaway’s identical title. The song was originally recorded by The Staple Singers and subsequently by Delaney & Bonnie and Joan Baez. Ruthie’s quiet version pays full respect to the socially conscious lyrics as the horns sit this one out and features the backing vocalists to good advantage.
The traditional “Death Comes A’ Knocking” develops from a gospel opening into a trumpet-heavy, full band presentation with a wild guitar solo thrown in. A run of three originals follows, starting with the lilting soul sounds of “Singing The Blues” which includes the line “a little Bobby Blue Bland never gets old” – who could disagree with that? Two songs from Ruthie’s 2002 breakout album Runaway Soul follow: the title track continues in the soul vein, the horns exuberant with sax man Joey Colarusso given an extended feature towards the end of the song; Ruthie takes us to church as the organ is the only instrument behind her vocals for the start of “Woke Up This Morning” before the band joins in for a joyous piece of gospel music. A second visit to The Staples Singers fits perfectly at this point and “Joy Comes Back” is given a New Orleans arrangement, appropriately featuring the trombones. Ruthie’s setting of Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” to music has remained a staple of her set ever since she first recorded it for The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster back in 2007. It remains a superb piece of music and this version is as good as any, the subtle arrangement fitting Ruthie’s vocal perfectly, making it an absolute highlight of this album.
When you have a band as good as this at your disposal why not take on a couple of classic songs from the great era of Big Bands? Ruthie does just that to close the show with great versions of “Fly Me To The Moon” and “Mack The Knife”, the latter preceded by her story of having to choose between heating the house or buying tickets to see Ella Fitzgerald – no prizes for guessing which Ruthie opted for!
Ruthie proves herself to be as good at this type of music as she is in soul, blues or gospel styles with her wonderful voice and warm personality. This outstanding album will also be available as a DVD though this review is based solely on the audio CD version.