BLACK AND WHITE by Leslie Zimei
Not your usual ‘covers’ album
Produced by: Michael Mattia, Con Calenza, Leslie Zimei and Fred Guarino
Executive Producer: Ray Hornosky
Musical tastes inspire generational conflict. And, I suppose, this is more than expected, it is actually healthy and even encouraged. Although sophistication is not a ladder to be climbed one rung at a time, certainly I don’t think one could argue the point that rock ‘n’ roll today is far more advanced than the songs of basic three- and four-chord progression pervasive in its infancy. As one gets older, however, the musical tastes of the generations begin to blend when the younger listener now understands and appreciates the building blocks that formed the foundation of current popular sound. A respect emerges.
The one form of music that bucks this trend is rhythm and blues. Cross-generational love of R & B is almost instant and complete and we can probably thank Berry Gordy of Motown Records for recognizing the potential for this music to reach across racial lines as well as generational boundaries. Of course it could be argued, and I’d make this argument myself, that early Motown, to insure its crossover appeal, was as much “pop” as it was “R & B” as Gordy and his team were feeling their way around this new territory. As a matter of fact, Motown was so successful with its formula, combining catchy melodies with impeccable musicianship and the soulful harmonies of beautiful voices, that Gordy, himself, resisted the inevitable maturation process – that is, taking his music to the next level. (Story has it that Smokey Robinson was instrumental in nudging Gordy along. And the music of The Temptations is the perfect example.) Gordy’s fears were completely unfounded as rhythm and blues continues to be popular today among young and old, black and white. And if you really go back enough, you’ll learn that, thanks mainly to Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips, there is no ownership of R & B.
So, along comes Black and White, a new album by Long Islander, Leslie Zimei, released this summer and dedicated to her mom. Ms. Zimei is no novice to music even though her name may not be immediately recognized. She has sung with the likes of Ben E. King and Bo Diddley. She has opened for artists such as Peggy Lee, Petula Clark and Bonnie Bramlett (Delaney & Bonnie). She was lead vocalist for a local blues-based band, Cadillac Moon, and she currently sings with The Pearl Street Band. And now, after more than 40 years recording and performing, she has finally put out her first “solo” album.
Armed with an enviable voice and a band of musicians so accomplished as to make the music sound, well, easy to create, Ms. Zimei has chosen to record an album of mostly covers from a wide range of rhythm and blues composers and performers from Billie Holiday and Etta James to Tracy Chapman. She moves between deep soul (“Bill Withers’ “Same Love that Made Me Laugh” and Etta James “Tell Mama”) and blues (an original, “Black and White”) with effortless sincerity and compassion, and stops for some fun along the way (“Save the Bones for Henry Jones” (Nat King Cole)). But mostly it’s straight rhythm and blues with style.
You only get one change at a first impression, as the saying goes, and Ms. Zimei has chosen wisely. The disc opens rather strongly with a cover of Tyron Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind?”, and you know instantly that if the album can only live up to the promise of its beginning, you will be in for a treat. And I’m happy to say that it certainly does, and you are. For example, her cover of Cannonball Adderly’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” adds a female perspective to the song that oozes with a sexiness that can only come from a woman with a little mileage; and, from this reviewer’s point of view, that is a decisive virtue. This song, above all, begs for the repeat button.
While a large majority of the album is a diverse assortment of impressive covers, the two originals, “Comin’ Home”, a sensitive, hopeful ballad in the soulful style of Dusty Springfield, and the aforementioned, bluesy title track, “Black and White”, both written with her former husband, Michael Mattia, complement their more familiar counterparts in rather impressive fashion, proudly putting Ms. Zimei’s own song-writing talents on display. Perhaps at first glance, seeing the song list of mostly R & B covers, you might be tempted to dismiss this collection as more of the same – you know, another in the seemingly endless line of uninspired, over-interpreted R & B standards. But after a listen or two, you’ll realize, as I did, that Black and White is really something quite special and deserves a place in your rhythm and blues collection.
Michael J Mand, On-web personality, OWWR