Eden Brent,
Mississippi Number One
(Yellow Dog, 2008)

Eden Brent, who grew up white and comfortably situated in Greenville, Miss., doesn't fit any particular romantic Delta fantasy or stereotype, unlike the famously (or notoriously) poor, non-Caucasian musicians who nurtured the blues in that region in the first half of the last century. Even so, her parents were unusually attuned to grassroots Southern sounds. Later, the young Brent, already possessed of notable piano-focused musical gifts, soaked up essential lessons in her days at University of North Texas student, when she moonlighted with the blues/boogie piano player Abie "Boogaloo" Ames.

Over time, she absorbed, even mastered, a range of African-American vernacular styles, including blues, r&b, soul and jazz-inflected pop. All are in evidence in Mississippi Number One. The title refers to a state highway, at a crossroads of which -- or so dubiously sourced legend attests -- Robert Johnson sealed a pact with the devil at midnight. (More certainly true, back in the 1930s such a legend was attached to another Mississippi deep-blues figure, Tommy Johnson, no relation.) Delta-style country blues, however, is the least of the presences here. Brent's approach, which can be properly described as classicist, manages to be urbane and precise without lapsing into bloodlessness. At once restrained and soulful, her sound is nothing like rowdy back-porch, juke-joint or dance-hall music; it's what you would hear in a tony nightclub where the standards are high, the atmospherics sophisticated, the tab beyond my price range.

Six of the 15 cuts are her originals, none of them out of place alongside standards "Careless Love," "Trouble in Mind," "Darkness on the Delta," "The Man I Love" and "Why Don't You Do Right," previously recorded by such world-class performers as Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Big Joe Turner and Peggy Lee. Nonetheless Brent's readings, in each case accomplished with just her and her piano, are assuredly her own.

On a few others she is joined by a small, tight band fluent in jazz and r&b. It's in this arrangement she offers a particularly stellar original, "Afraid to Let Go," sung with a light, languid slur that conjures up dreams and longing sufficient to transform pain and loss into unadulterated pleasure. It bears mentioning, incidentally, that three of the songs were written by Carole Brent, Eden's late mother. Eden arrived in the world, they inform us, with all the right genes.

With strength, depth and beauty to spare, Mississippi Number One is a spectacularly moving musical statement. It deserves a whole lot more attention than it is likely to receive in a world where flash nearly always dazzles more than substance.

review by
Jerome Clark

3 May 2008

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