Ennis turns oldies into originals

CD Reviews

October 01, 1998|By Steve Andrulonis Soundtrack Various Artists J.D. Considine

Ethel Ennis

If Women Ruled the World (Savoy Jazz 9915)

Jazz singing works by different rules from rock or R&B. With rock, melody is a singer's foremost concern, followed by the desire to convey a depth of feeling; with R&B, the emotional component is a bit more important, as is a certain vocal virtuosity, but as with rock, putting the tune across still comes first.

Jazz singing, by contrast, is less about the song than what the singer can do with it. Just as a jazz instrumentalist will use the elements of harmony and melody to construct an improvisation, the jazz singer is out to reinvent the material, turning each performance into a song of self.

So even though Ethel Ennis devotes most of "If Women Ruled the World" to songs by rock-era songwriters, her song selection is more likely to frustrate pop fans than make them feel at home. Because no matter how familiar the songs or songwriters might be - and there's work here by such notable women as Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt - what the Baltimore-based singer does with the material is so idiosyncratic that the songs may as well have been originals.

"When I Need You" is a case in point. Anyone who listened to the radio in the late '70s will easily remember the waltz-time cadences of this endearingly saccharine love song, but that won't help you with Ennis' version. Not only has Ennis turned the metronomic regularity of the melody into something as fluid and elaborate as a sax solo, she's also changed the basic beat of the song, rethinking it in a confidently swinging four/four.

What does she gain by making such changes? For one thing, the re-arrangement moves the song firmly onto her turf, jazz; for another, it gives her more freedom to play with the melody, to tap potential and unearth possibilities a straight rendition would never have suggested.

Mostly, though, rethinking these songs gives Ennis the chance to say what she thinks they're about. Her jazz singing isn't just about notes, it's also very much about words, about cutting to the heart of what a song is saying. So even though her delivery of Des'ree's "You Gotta Be" deviates from what a pop fan would think of as the melody, what she brings to the song is a deeper understanding of its message than can be found on the original.

It helps that Ennis is working with a crew of musicians who can easily bridge the gap between jazz and pop. Guitarist John Abercrombie sizzles through Tracy Chapman's "Tell It Like It Is," saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom brings pungent counterpoint to Mitchell's "For Free," and drummer Dennis Chambers provides a supple, driving pulse in Joan Osborne's "Spider Web." With players like these behind her, it's no wonder Ennis feels free to take these songs wherever her muse suggests. ***

Country

Alabama

For The Record - 41 Number One Hits (RCA 67633)

Creatively, Alabama, a country chart-topper since 1980, seems to have stalled. The foursome's five releases since '94 include a third volume of greatest hits, a second Christmas record and this two-CD collection. None of the three new tracks here - making for a total of 44 songs - distinguishes itself. This package, however, does well in chronicling the group's development. Several '80s cuts - "When We Make Love" and "Lady Down On Love" for two - reveal an almost painful lack of subtlety. But lead singer Randy Owen and company do grow a bit, eventually producing infectious pop on "I'm in a Hurry" and the moving "In Pictures," a father's lament about not being there for the big moments in his child's life. **

Scooby-Doo's Snack Tracks: The Ultimate Collection (Rhino 75505)

The beloved cartoon series "Scooby-Doo" was never known for its grasp on reality. (Why were the Harlem Globetrotters always showing up?) So, it makes Scooby sense that "Scooby Doo's Snack Tracks: The Ultimate Collection" is ridiculously random. The only identified singers on this CD of generic flower-power tunes are Jerry Reed and Davy Jones. Hippie-dippie sub-Monkees songs from original episodes, and exponentially lame rock, disco and show-tune tracks from circa '80s TV revivals, are thematically inconsistent with a foursome of teen sleuths and a talking dog driving around in a psychedelic van and solving supernatural mysteries. Groovy dialogue snippets and theme music round out this Shagadelic shebang, which ends in a techno tribute, that's, like, kinda spooky. This schlock may appeal to ultra-squares like Daphne and Fred, but edgy hipsters a la Velma, Shaggy and Scooby would never stand for it. And neither should you. *1/2

Tamara Ikenberg

ub Date: 10/01/98

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