Hazel Mitchell-Bell’s “Stronger Than Ever” lives up to its title

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Even if a listener does not know much about jazz vocalist Hazel Mitchell-Bell, after hearing the selections on “Stronger Than Ever,” he or she will feel as if they have had an introduction of sorts.

The album seems to be the first from the powerhouse singer. Still, Mitchell-Bell is not new to jazz, or other genres, for that matter. Still, the album brims with vitality, class and an overall musicality from the first track to the last. “Stronger Than Ever” is the kind of album that makes audiences wish there were more recordings by the performer that they could get their hands on immediately.

Recently, “Stronger Than Ever” was ranked No. 2 on the NACC jazz charts, right after Wynton Marsalis’ “Bolden” soundtrack. The accomplishment is a feat for any performer, but it is especially impressive for Mitchell-Bell. However, the NACC ranking might be proof that her years of performing in the Washington DC area have paid off.

“Stronger Than Ever” is a collection of tribute songs straight from the Great American Songbook. Even with that tradition guiding the project, Mitchell-Bell manages to re-create songs that audiences might know, but have not heard in a jazz context. Standouts on the album are “Four Women” and “Feel Like Making Love.”

The sound of “Stronger Than Ever” by Hazel Mitchell-Bell

In a bold move, Mitchell-Bell takes on the provocative Nina Simone track, “Four Women” to begin the album. Each verse describes a skin color that a black woman can be found in, complete with description of hair type. But more than a catalog of looks, the song also details how or why the women came to be. Various types of violence that black women are the product of and victim of are described, or hinted at. In other words, this is not light fare. For those hearing Mitchell-Bell for the first time, her perfect diction does justice to the words and prompts further listening.

Audiences will likely take to Mitchell-Bell’s work because her rich voice is never too breathy. It ebbs and flows to provide the correct dynamics at just the right moment. The singer engages listeners by singing as though each song was personally penned by her. The authenticity shines through and she is backed by stellar musicians whose work complements Mitchell-Bell’s, and doesn’t overwhelm her voice.

After giving audiences a taste of 1960s protest music with Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” later in the recording Mitchell-Bell delves into the Roberta Flack songbook to produce her own version of “Feel Like Making Love.”

Here, a steady bass groove, clicking drums and gentle piano provide just the right backdrop for Mitchell-Bell’s nuanced and rich vocals. There is something about her voice that lets listeners know that she believes or has lived the words to these songs. It is interesting to hear Mitchell-Bell’s voice arc from a honey-rich alto quality to a more ardent soprano in the same song. The transitions are smooth and generous. She never holds back. That is another aspect of this recording that is so satisfying. The saxophone accents the song perfectly and the wispy fadeout of the vocals adds the final romantic touch to the track.

Another song that shouldn’t be missed is “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon” is a romantic dream that Mitchell-Bell invites listeners on. The earnest beauty with which she sings should not be missed.

On “Stronger Than Ever” Mitchell-Bell is joined by Craig Alston on saxophones and flute; Vince Evans on piano, keyboards, programming; Robert Fiester on guitar; James B. King Jr.,  on bass; J.C. Jefferson Jr. on drums; Asali Ruth McIntyre on violin; Bonnie Grier on violin; Gerard Battle on viola and Denna Purdie on cello.

 

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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