Patti LaBelle is synonymous with powerhouse soul and Gospel vocals and fashion-forward style. Now in her 70’s, LaBelle has taken on jazz and demonstrates a masterful grasp of her subject.
Patti LaBelle and American music history
Patti LaBelle is probably best known for being the lead singer of the group that bears her name, “LaBelle.” The group’s most famous hit, “Lady Marmalade,” is the darling of karaoke hopefuls everywhere. “Lady Marmalade” draws listeners in with saxophone seared sound, and its simple rhythm, dynamic vocals and simple storyline convinces many fans that they are equipped to take on the French of the chorus, and the soaring soprano notes that punctuate the song.
But that was the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, LaBelle, either by herself or as half of a duet, was all over the charts. Most notably, she paired with former Doobie Brother, Michael McDonald in 1986 for the song, “On My Own.” The song was played on different radio formats and became synonymous with sophisticated, troubled love affairs.
In the early years of the 21st century, LaBelle released a Gospel album. There were also live albums and countless tour dates. LaBelle continues to be an influence on singers who have come after her. But as her current work demonstrates, LaBelle is quite nearly incomparable.
Patti LaBelle and jazz
I am not sure how LaBelle could have released a jazz album to little fanfare. Not long ago, even the singer’s pies were features on news broadcasts. At any rate, LaBelle has taken on jazz and she sounds natural in the genre that is new to her.
Given the dynamics and range of LaBelle’s voice, I was shocked to find that this was her first official foray into jazz. The movement and texture needed for jazz at times calls for a voice that is as flexible as it is powerful. However, some fans of both LaBelle and jazz might wonder, why jazz? Why now?
Maybe the answer is, the work is a retrospective. Maybe at this point in her career, LaBelle just needed a challenge. I can see both of those as the actual reasons for the album.
“Bel Hommage” by Patti LaBelle
“Bel Hommage,” or “beautiful tribute,” is indeed stunning. The album’s visuals feature LaBelle in her characteristic stylish dresses and her hair in a classic smooth bob. LaBelle stands in front of a moody backdrop of violet, red, and mauve. A black baby grand piano takes up a good portion of the scenery. The colors piece themselves come together in a subtle way.
“The Jazz in You”
The album kicks off with this sultry, rollicking track. A horn section swings hard, but it does not overpower LaBelle’s voice. She does not sound like her 70-plus years. Her pronunciation is clear, her energy is kinetic, and it comes through in the way she phrases the lyrics.
Unlike some jazz songs that approach love from a bittersweet angle, this is a celebration. The entire song is a flirtatious enterprise, and listeners can believe that the singer really does “love the jazz” in the object of her affection.
While most listeners might be more familiar with Gloria Lynne’s 1961 version. However, LaBelle’s take on the song is admirable. LaBelle’s acumen does not detract from Lynne’s version.
It would seem that music fans have heard it all now that LaBelle has released a jazz album. But as LaBelle has managed to take various style detours in her lengthy career, audiences should prepare to be surprised by her.