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Years ago, when I was sent a marvellous retrospective collection of the recently-deceased Little Jimmy Scott for review for Songbook, I wrote, “Such is the quality and pitch of his voice that in comparing him with the best, those comparisons must be with Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holliday and Peggy Lee”. Similarly, it would be unfair to compare Erja’s take on Elmore with Elmore himself.
Erja, you see, is from Finland, where a forward-looking government, appalled by the incidence of heart disease, carried out research and concluded that the juicy berries that ripen during Finland’s short growing season were a missing essential part of the North Karelian diet, that smoking should be discouraged and cholesterol reduction should be a health priority. It’s worked, and young, healthy Finns, like Erja, are thriving.
What’s the point of this? Just juxtapose the healthy lifestyle of an energetic, blooming child of the 70s with the disease-ridden carcass that Elmore James had become by his death in 1963, of heart failure, of course. Elmore was only 45, just seven years older than Erja’s current age. That Elmore’s life was wracked by poverty, poor healthcare, chain-smoking, excessive self-distilled moonshine consumption and the lifestyle of an itinerant black musician is in no doubt. There can also be little doubt that the alcohol and tobacco over-consumption contributed to that voice – hoarse, husky, timbrous, soulful and pleading.
Erja Lyytinen doesn’t sound like that when she sings. We know from previous releases that she is a fine, developing blues singer with estimable expressive abilities, an ear for those evocative blue notes. Fans hope that she has a long and successful life in front of her. It is unfair therefore, to compare her (or most musicians) vocally with Elmore James, and we must appreciate her own unique contribution to the blues and be happy that she is in the prime of life.
Leaving aside Erja’s singing which is passionate and sympathetic to the material, and is developing into a very fine instrument, she makes a fair fist of interpreting nine of Elmore’s finest cuts on The Sky Is Crying. In paying humble tribute to this innovator, Erja dazzles in celebrating Elmore’s other fantastic attribute, bottleneck guitar, yet nearly always sticks closely to original release arrangements with any embellishments tasteful and in keeping with the oft-imitated James attack. In resisting the temptation to add modern studio polish and trickery, Erja maintains the rawness that is so essential to the emotion and desolation of James's delivery. Why meddle with what, to many, is perfection?
In amassing over a decade’s worth of experience as a blueswoman, she has the understanding, sensibilities and feel too for Elmore's classic sides to do them more than justice. In so doing, she has not merely changed the third person pronouns to emote the finest of Elmore's recordings from a woman's perspective, but has naturally brought female nuances to songs which are in the DNA of the blues. Erja is able to affect subtly the feelings originally expressed in the 50s and 60s where male dominance and machismo held sway. 'Baby Please Set A Date' in Erja's interpretation has a wholly different feel to Elmore's reading Both are pleading and longing, but in the 2014 recording, the female vocal lends an almost 50s pop-soul feel to a sprightly and personal take.
On occasion, changes are made which differentiate slightly the James recordings from the Lyytinen cuts, but these have not been made without considerable thought having gone into the arrangements. The extended soloing in ‘It Hurts Me Too’ is well-judged, superbly-pitched, displays sublime Elmore tone and is never indulgent. A slowing of the pace of the mournful ‘The Sky Is Crying’ lends it an increased desolate ambience, a heightened sense of emptiness and hopelessness and may be the most atmospheric of all eleven cuts.
Got To Move’ is probably most at odds with the James recording, here arranged as an enjoyable low-key funk workout driven by Roger Inniss's bubbling bassline. ‘Erja's Contribution To Jazz’ takes Elmore's instrumental of (almost) the same name as a platform before the Lyytinen stamp is imprinted. After a note-faithful introduction to the original, she makes it her own, demonstrating along the way that she not only understands technique, but phrasing for atmospheric and emotional effect. She also demonstrates an admirable empathy with the irreplaceable giant that is Elmore James, proven by a full-octane tour de force live ‘Dust My Broom’, a fitting coda to a beautiful tribute.
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