More than 50 years ago, Amiri Baraka released the book Blues People: Negro Music in White America. The book put forth the idea that African Americans were a Blues People, that, more than just music, the blues were a way of life for them. Today Kim Nalley looks at the ideas of Baraka's book and expands upon them, setting them to music. The result is Blues People, a diverse record based in the blues that showcases Nalley's considerable talents.
The album opens with Nalley's sultry reading of "Summertime." The sparse piano accompaniment from Tammy Hall lets Nalley's voice shine, which goes from breathy to power-packed in an instant. It's a potent opener to the proceedings. "Big Hooded Black Man," a Nalley original, follows. Nalley gives a gritty vocal performance on this slow-burning blues number. Much like with "Summertime," the musicians, including Greg Skaff on guitar, Michael Zisman on bass and Kent Bryson on drums, stay out of the way while still adding to the song with what they play.
Two versions of Mahalia Jackson's "Trouble Of The World" feature here. The first finds Nalley backed by piano, giving a soulful vocal, Hall's piano providing the perfect backdrop while the second features a full band with Hall switching to organ and a completely different feel. While the former takes on more of a gospel feel, the latter is a bluesy workout that would make Janis Joplin proud.
When "Movin' On Up" was used as the theme to The Jeffersons, it was an up-tempo gospel number. Here it is presented as a slow-burning blues track. The reinterpretation works surprisingly well as Nalley sells the song with an edgy vocal. Nalley proves adept at torch songs as well with a fine "Sugar In My Bowl."
Nalley gets political on "Ferguson Blues," lamenting the death of Michael Brown and the lack of an arrest for the police officer who shot him. It's powerful stuff and shows Nalley isn't afraid to take on controversial issues. The album closes with a strong cover of "I Shall be Released" that finds Nalley giving an inspiring vocal.
With her takes on classic blues, jazz and folk songs, and her willingness to tackle difficult subjects, Nalley attempts to make a musical interpretation of Baraka's book and largely succeeds. With a strong band and Nalley's killer vocals, Blues People is a winner.