Some voices seem to invite specific descriptions; I'd bet virtually every review, every article ever written about Toni Lynn Washington has employed the word 'smoky' in attempting to convey her sound in words. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if the words 'sultry' and 'sassy" popped up more than once as well.
"Been So Long" is Toni Lynn's fourth full-length outing and her first on Canada's NorthernBlues label. How president Fred Litwin, who's been unflinching in his drive to champion music that challenges convention (and who, as a result, has seen NorthernBlues widely recognized as one of the most interesting and respected labels around) hooked up with a relatively mainstream act based in New England, I'll never know. Perhaps it's just that Fred, as he's said of other releases, simply couldn't pass on such a quality product. Whatever his reasons, blues fans ought to thank him for his faith and vision. "Been So Long" is a superlative outing by a major talent.
Toni Lynn's blues are decidedly of the uptown variety. Not exactly supper club stuff, as that implies more show than substance; but neither would one expect to find her in the gritty, hole-in-the-wall clubs we often think of as the blues' natural territory. There's passion aplenty, but it's presented with polish, and there's a sheen of smooth sophistication that owes much to jazz.
Toni Lynn's supported once again by her long-time musical director, Bruce Bears, trumpeter Scott Aruda, and guitarist Kevin Belz. But much of the project's success is no doubt attributable to the presence of the approaching-ubiquitous Duke Robillard, on hand as guitarists and producer (the disc was recorded at his own Duke's Mood Room studio). And no one, simply no one, does this sort of thing better. Duke's recruited his own band (drummer Mark Texeira and bassist Jesse Williams) and frequent sidemen Doug James (baritone and Gordon Beadle (tenor) to help out.
With performers of this caliber, musical excellence is simply the norm. Which leaves song selection and, of course, Toni Lynn's own performance, as the disc's variables. The material? Toni Lynn's reached back to songs that have been with her, whether in her repertoire or simply as a memory from her childhood, for a long time. So we get "Backwater Blues," made famous by Bessie Smith, and a relatively uptempo version of "Willow Weep For Me"; she invests "I Don't Hurt Anymore," one of her mom's favourites, with a staunch defiance, slows "It's Love Baby (24 Hours A Day)" right down, and gives "Angel Eyes" an unusually jaunty reading. Livelier fare includes the bouncy opener, "I Don't Want Nobody (To Have My Love For You)," which owes more than a little to Ray's immortal "Hallelujah I Love Her So," the furiously-paced "Guilty (Witness To The Crime)," and the house-rockin' title track. To me, though, the disc's highlight (among many) is William Bell's ""Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday," an achingly beautiful soul tune ideally suited to Toni Lynn's combination of tender regret and wistful hope.
And then there's that voice. Smoky, sultry, and seductive only begin to hint at its riches. Capable of both aching vulnerability and a fierce, indomitable strength (often, paradoxically, at the same time), it's unequivocally a woman's voice; one hears hard-earned wisdom in every word Ms. Washington sings, yet for all she's seen, for all the hardships she's endured, there's nonetheless an unquenchable belief in a better world, a better life.
If I had to sum up "Been So Long" (or, for that matter, Toni Lynn herself) with a single word, I think I'd choose 'classy.' This is a stellar outing and yet another jewel in the NorthernBlues canon.
Recommended without reservation!
NorthernBlues Music, Inc.
225 Sterling Road, Unit 19, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6R 2B2
Web : www.northernblues.com
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