“This music makes me sad: can you put something else on?” asked the sous chef.
Funny how the same piece of music can produce different responses in different people. I was head waiter in an awful little restaurant in Brisbane and playing my own choice of music as we got ready for service was one of the things that kept me going as I worked out my time there. Eva Cassidy’s Live at Blues Alley was on the stereo that evening: I’m not sure what track was playing when the chef made that request, but each tune fair drips with heart and soul and for me are anything but sad.
Cassidy throws herself into each song wholeheartedly, making it her own as her soprano voice soars and swoops while her backing band groove effortlessly behind her. I think this is what I like so much about this disc — it’s full of heart and soul and rings so true amongst the landscape of 21st century contemporary music that too often resembles a desert wasteland.
I’m reminded of St Paul’s words in his letter to the Colossians: “Whatsoever you do, do it from the heart, as to the Lord, and not to men” or as another translation has it: “And do all that you do with all your soul.” There’s a purity and strength in Cassidy’s music that perhaps points out the creative work of the Spirit in the background as Cassidy offers these songs to her listeners.
People Get Ready is a gospel-tinged belter that starts slow and builds to a full head of steam like the train referenced in its lyrics: “People get ready / There’s a train a-coming / You don’t need no baggage / You just get on board / All you need is faith”. Honeysuckle Rose, one of my favourite jazz tunes and a sassy love song, is delivered with a similar swing. “Every honey bee fills with jealousy / When they see you out with me / I don’t blame them, goodness knows / My honeysuckle rose.” Al Green’s Take Me to the River and Irving Berlin’s Cheek to Cheek are also toe-tappers. “Heaven, I’m in heaven / And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak / And I seem to find the happiness I seek / When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.”
She doesn’t just stop at faith and love and happiness though, of course: what chanteuse worth her salt would? Tall Trees in Georgia is a tale of love lost: “Sadly walking through the thicket I go / The sweetest love I ever had I left aside / Because I did not want to be any man’s bride.” The band sits this one out, leaving just Cassidy’s keening voice and acoustic guitar.
An American song from the 90s – Sting’s Fields of Gold — and a French one from 1945 — Autumn Leaves — follow in a bracket of slower tracks. (These might have been the songs that stirred the young chef’s heart so.) “The falling leaves drift by my window / The falling leaves of red and gold. / . . . I miss you most of all my darling / When autumn leaves start to fall.”
Folk singer Pete Seeger’s Oh Had I A Golden Thread closes the album. This song’s lyrics teeter on the edge of sentimentality, but Cassidy’s voice, over a warm bed of bass and Hammond organ, imbues them with vigour and truth. “Oh, had I a golden thread and a needle so fine / I’d weave a magic spell of rainbow design / Bind up this sorry world with hand and heart and mind.”
The lyrics speak of courage and innocence and Cassidy delivers them unapologetically and with force. This commitment is apparent throughout the album. She’s not afraid of the occasional vocal mis-step or of appearing vulnerable or passionate as she pursues her work.
I look forward to seeing some of this same truth and beauty, this heart and soul, at the upcoming 55th National Jazz Festival in Tauranga at Easter: the line-up looks good. Soulman Paul Ubana Jones will be there; Julia Deans and friends will present jazz versions of Kiwi pop classics; young people from around the country will compete in big bands and combos. Performers and audiences will swim in the same stream that Cassidy did: jazz at its best is a torrent of fun and ferocity in equal measure and can help us “bind up this sorry world” as we get stuck into life “together, dancing cheek to cheek” fuelled by the good music we love.