Review: Ed Reed - Born to Be Blue

Ed Reed proves that there's no substitute for a lifetime of experience.
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Ed Reed - Born To Be BlueThere probably couldn’t be a better title for Ed Reed’s third album than Born to Be Blue. Reed has, after all, lived a life of the blues. He’s taken the long road to get to where he finds himself, that’s for sure, and the fissures and characters in his rich voice illustrate the history.

Four years ago, Reed released his debut album Ed Reed Sings Love Stories. The catch? He was 78. The Song is You was released a year later and Reed, already an elder statesman by default, trotted through an expanded touring slate and guested on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. In 2008 and 2009, he was named to the “Male Vocals – Rising Star” category in the Downbeat Critics Poll.

Born to Be Blue, out now on Blue Shorts, is an outgrowth of Reed’s five-night run at Marians Jazzroom in Switzerland in 2009. Backed by pianist Randy Porter, bassist Robb Fisher and drummer Akira Tana, the sessions in Bern were stupendous. Reed took the group with him to the Bay Area and into the studio. Tenor saxophonist Anton Schwartz was thrown in the mix.

Reed’s story is a long and painful one, to say the least, but it’s also one of persistence and ultimate victory.

He was born in Cleveland and raised in Los Angeles. By age 11, he had learned to sing chord changes from Charles Mingus. Unfortunately, Reed began using heroin when he was in the army. After being asked to leave the service, Reed returned to L. A. and attempted a career. The addiction took over instead and the singer spent most of the 60s and 70s behind bars.

In 1986, Reed entered recovery and began to sing in public again in the early 90s. In 2005, he attended JazzCamp West and made an impression on instructor Peck Allmond. Together they recorded Reed’s debut in 2007.

What we have here is the pinnacle of such a life. Reed credits a love of jazz for helping him through his sentences in San Quentin and Folsom. He sang in the warden’s show in an inmate big band with Art Pepper and, as a result, he packs a great receptivity for the flow of a tune.

When Reed takes to the title track, a piece by Mel Tormé, he is singing from experience. Schwartz’s saxophone lets out a little room and Reed glides in, enunciating with a splendidly unpretentious voice that, warts and all, encompasses a life of frustration and definitive accomplishment.

That story, one of missed and vigorously-gathered opportunities, lies behind each of the 13 tracks on Born to Be Blue. More than any accumulation of love songs or standards, these pieces pronounce an existence with sharp arrangements and a hesitant but textured voice.

Whether he’s crooning on Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” or sincerely cutting through Abbey Lincoln’s graceful “Throw It Away,” there’s reflective reality to Reed’s vocal performance. While I wouldn’t venture to say he’s the best singer I’ve heard, Ed Reed certainly gives his all. His hunger is unambiguous and his honesty, shining through every note, is something few artists are able to muster at any age.