Stronger Than Ever
Based on several recent releases, the Washington D.C. jazz scene if full of talent and thriving. Just last week we reviewed saxophonist Jordon Dixon. Recently this writer also was moved by D.C.’s Coniece Washington’s tribute to her idol, Shirley Horn, on Shades of Shirley Horn. Key to that album as well as this outstanding debut from vocalist Hazel Mitchell-Bell is pianist and arranger Vince Evans. Mitchell-Bell is a veteran singer, equally comfortable in jazz, soul, R&B and probably other formats too. Her range is impressive, sometimes moving from alto to soprano in the same song. Her intonation and phrasing are right on and she draws that ever sensitive line between being both sultry and classy. And, she has courage. Not many would choose to cover Nina Simone let alone open an album with Nina’s provocative “Four Women” as Mitchell-Bell does here on this rather unique concept of marrying Soul and R&B hits with those of the Great American Songbook.
Mitchell-Bell covers the mega hit from Bad Company, “Feel Like Making love,” stripping away its pop excess and delivering a sultry combination of just lyric and melody. She’s brave enough to do Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” as well as closing with Curtis Mayfield’s ballad, “The Makings of You.” Along the way we get the soulful, joyful “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon,” and standards like “Skylark” and “Autumn Leaves”
Mitchell-Bell is accompanied on every tune by pianist Evans, bassist James B. King and drummer J.C. Jefferson. This trio sometimes forms the rhythm section for her quintet featuring saxophonist/flutist Craig Alston and guitarist Robert Feister. Some selections feature vibraphonist Chris Barrick and/or harpist Kim Sator-Randolph. Others have a string quartet -Asali Ruth McIntyre (violin), Bonnie Carter (violin), Gerard Battle (viola) and Denna Purdie (cello).
Vince Evans, musical director, not only played but arranged, engineered, mixed and mastered the album. Here’s what he says about Mitchell-Bell, “I have worked with many singers throughout the years, but every once in a while, someone comes along that truly extraordinary…this is that someone!” Fortunately, Mitchell-Bell is already drawing plenty of notice. Recently, “Stronger Than Ever” was ranked No. 2 on the NACC jazz adds chart, right after Wynton Marsalis’ Bolden soundtrack, an impressive achievement for a debut.
In Simone’s “Four Women” each verse describes a skin color that a black woman can be found in, complete with description of hair type. As the song unfolds, it details how or why the women came to be as an outcry against violence, circa ‘60s protest music. But Mitchell-Bell doesn’t mimic Nina’s anger. Instead, she delivers it straight, putting her own stamp on it as she does on all the material here. She uses the spare backdrop of bass and drums to ease into “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” demonstrating considerable vocal range as she progresses, leaving room for a soulful tenor sax solo from Alston
She gets bluesy on “Rio De Janeiro Blue” and swings with abandon with Evans on “Let There Be Love.” She’s bold and sensuous, building to a terrific crescendo in “Willow Weep For Me” and appropriately blue behind Jefferson’s mallets on “Autumn Leaves.” There are no misses or filler here. She nails them all. To best appreciate the clarity and emotional textures of her vocals, visit those with strings like “I Wish You Love” or “Skylark.”
Hazel Mitchell-Bell is one of the most impressive vocalists to enter this incredibly competitive arena of jazz vocalists. Already she stands near the top. This is highly recommended. You will listen repeatedly.
- Jim Hynes