Album Shuffle 010: Esther Phillips, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM

Kudu · 1971

The sly, slinky funk reaches out, curls around your body, and then it has you by the throat and you can't get away no matter how you tussle. And the voice speaks — or no, it chants — with such deep intensity that it stills your muscles but sets your brain afire. "A junkie walking through the twilight..."

It's a Gil Scott-Heron song, it's called "Home Is Where The Hatred Is," and when it lost to Aretha Franklin's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (srsly?) at the 1972 Grammies, the Queen of Soul, never noted for her unwillingness to receive acclaim, said it belonged instead to the woman who once went by Little Esther, two decades and many pop lifetimes ago. Little no more, Esther has grown into her cracked moan of a voice, and sings with an authority she's all too heartbreakingly earned. The slithery twilit funk that backs her strikes a balance between the cinematic strut of Isaac Hayes and the late-night woe of B. B. King; soul-jazz, jazz-blues, and fusion legends sit behind her and noodle seductively away as Esther pours all seduction from her.

Her words are not her own — not only avant-beat poet GSH, but Big Easy funkmaster Allen Toussaint, Marvin em effing Gaye, etc. have scripted these beautiful, anguished poses for her to strike — but her performative power makes them live, and she very nearly approaches the plateau where the most singular vocal genius of the age, Nina Simone, sits lonely and narrow-eyed surveying the world with a warm despair in her throat.

It's too easy to call it a soul record: it's as much jazz, or blues, or funk — and it's none of these things entirely, it finds its own shadowy path through them, hugging the interstices, lost in the stars. Esther Phillips demands rediscovery.

No comments:

Post a Comment