Toni Lynn Washington,
Been So Long
(NorthernBlues, 2003)

I listen to a lot of blues, but it's mostly older stuff, and mostly out of Chicago, Memphis and the rural South. Toni Lynn Washington was new to me when I heard this disc. She's out of Boston, whose blues scene I thought -- pretty naively, I learn -- consists more or less in its entirety of white artists such as Chris Smither and the Tarbox Ramblers. I am pleased to learn, morever, that Washington is a real pro. Her roots are in the country church in North Carolina, but her mature sound -- and Been So Long is every inch a grown-up record -- claims big-city bars and clubs as its natural habitat.

That doesn't make her different from many other African-American performers, of course, but she does remind you of what this sort of personal journey and musical odyssey have given the world: an art for all times and places. It's not possible to believe, for example, that a splendidly sung and perfectly swung "Willow, Weep for Me," however often tackled, will ever sound less than welcome. Washington's version makes me smile, and I have no doubt that the east and west edges of your lips will slip northward should you be fortunate enough to hear it, too.

After her young years as a gospel singer, Washington turned to jazz, then on to the sort of classic R&B that comprised black America's popular music from the late 1940s into the '60s. All of these inform her approach, and she's integrated them into an organic whole that seems at times to encapsulate all of blues history. In her extended treatment of the Bessie Smith classic "Back Water Blues," she begins with a solo acoustic country-blues guitar quietly plunking behind her, then moves on to pick up other stringed, electrified and brass instruments, comfortably and unhurriedly, until shotgun shack is ghetto-Chicago public housing and finally sleek penthouse, all in 6:14. It's one of the most remarkable and innovative blues pieces I've heard this year, something that, with one false step, could collapse into absurdity and pretentiousness, but never comes close. Washington has lived it all, and it shows.

"Back Water Blues" is the one cut that'll knock you across the room, then get you back on your feet lurching in the direction of the CD player so that you can hear it again. But the other cuts are good, too, the kinds of solid, no-nonsense songs, arrangements and performances that only the hardest working -- and most gifted -- can make sound like a friend confiding the most private secrets into your ear. (A particular treat is "I Don't Hurt Anymore." Hank Snow songs are seldom covered by R&B artists, and Washington's reading at once honors its source and takes it elsewhere.) Let's heap praise, too, on the inspired arrangements by producers Duke Robillard and Bruce Bears.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 20 December 2003

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