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Both halves of the title of this new compilation are misleading. This can’t really be called a “Best Of” without including any of LOU RAWLS’s hits, nor can all of the tracks here be termed either jazz or blues. None of this matters, though, because there are three things that matter more (beyond Rawls’ superb singing, that is). First, good programming judgment means almost everything here sounds great. Second, there is no overlap with Capitol’s fine two-CD Anthology (well, both have “Tobacco Road,” but in different versions).
The third factor is what makes this disc a must-own for any Rawls fan: there’s a previously unreleased March 11, 1963 three-song session on which Rawls is accompanied by the CURTIS AMY SEXTET, the same month that half that group recorded the cult classic Katanga (on Pacific Jazz; it is out-of-print, but well worth searching out—it was reissued on CD in the ‘90s). They strut through BIG BILL BROONZY’s blues classic “Mean Old World,” gussying it up but missing none of its feeling, as if to prove that post-bop had plenty of soul. Then they swing through two BILLIE HOLIDAY songs, “Long Gone Blues” and “Fine and Mellow.” The arrangements, presumably by Amy, are delightfully cool and snappy, with sophisticated harmonies, while the solos, fills, and obbligatos by Amy (on tenor sax), shoulda-been-a-star trumpeter DUPREE BOLTON, guitarist RAY CRAWFORD, and pianist PHIL MOORE are succinctly pointed. Rawls sounds fabulous in this context!
The other material on the collection spans Rawls’ 1962-70 tenure on Capitol. Four of the arrangements are exciting small-to-medium-group jazz, but most are orchestral. BENNY CARTER, BENNY GOLSON, and ONZY MATTHEWS are excellent leaders/arrangers on five of the big-group tracks; H.B. BARNUM is less consistent – sometimes even just plain corny—on the other six. Compiler MICHAEL CUSCUNA wisely was not tempted by any of the cheesier stuff Rawls was sometimes subjected to recording, even those by Carter. The stylistic anomalies are “Motherless Child,” from Rawls’s 1962 reunion album with the PILGRIM TRAVELERS, the gospel group he paid his dues with, and a 1970 cover of “Somebody Have Mercy” with the MUSCLE SHOALS FAME GANG from his SAM COOKE tribute album.
And a special tip of the hat to Cuscuna, whose track choices and booklet notes for this album are not only right on the money in every musical and historical aspect, but are also informed by his experience producing Rawls decades later for Blue Note. And, having previously noted Rawls’s dedication to raising money for the United Negro College Fund, an endeavor in which he was highly visible for a quarter-century thanks to his annual telethon, Cuscuna delivers an anecdote involving a panhandler many New Yorkers may remember from his smile-inducing come-on line. Rawls and Cuscuna were walking on Seventh Avenue when this character approached with his usual pitch—“Please make a donation to the United Negro Pizza Fund”—and, suddenly recognizing who he was accosting, immediately added, “Oh my god, it’s you. I’m so sorry.” That’s not just amusing, it’s also indicative of the respect that Rawls commanded. And, as Cuscuna recounts, “Lou laughed, patted him on the shoulder, and gave him $20.”
Rawls is gone, but the music and the memories remain. Thanks to Cuscuna and Capitol for giving us more of each.
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