These days it is rare to hear a new release that can fit into the classic genre of 50s and 60s popular song. Those days are lost forever it would seem. Some long for that time, others moved on into bop, post-bop, fusion and the rest. But it is nice, now and again to hear the balladry of one of those timeless voices from the past singing new music on a new album. Barbara Lea’s latest release, Our Love Rolls On: Live at Red, is such an album. She is a vocalist from that era, and has never given up her voice, or her style.
Ms. Lea released this album as a tribute to the pianist Wes McAfee, a long time associate and good friend. It is wonderful to hear two musicians who match each other’s style so perfectly. Currently, musicians are convinced in most cases to use bigger names on their albums rather than their working bands. And usually this provides for bigger album sales, but slightly less musicality on an album. This example is completely the opposite. It is a labor of love for Ms. Lea. Mr. McAfee passed away recently, and she has released this album as a tribute to his memory and to his music.
Both musicians’ styles are slightly antiquated. This is perhaps emphasized in the duet setting (although some tunes do include bass by Saaid Zain). Ms. Lea sings in the style of Rosemary Clooney, and Mr. McAfee plays mostly stride accompaniment. However, he thoroughly impresses us on some numbers, ranging technically and stylistically from James P. Johnson to Oscar Peterson. His stride is accurate and polished but never predictable. From walking bass lines in the left hand to running octaves in the right, he continues the tradition of so many great pianists from the stride era.
Ms. Lea’s vocalists are heartfelt, but at times she struggles with tone and intonation. This can be very attractive in older vocalists but doesn’t quite come across well in this setting. Her voice is matured with experience, but also aged by use.
The repertoire on the album, perhaps predictably, is mostly medium vocal tunes, with a few blues mixed in. The only truly up-tempo tune is "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" near the end of the album. It is possible that Ms. Lea simply does not feel comfortable with the higher tempos anymore. It is also possible that the medium tunes showcase more broadly Mr. McAfee’s talents.
The most distracting aspect of this album is the sound quality. It was recorded live in a club. However, it sounds like it was not re-mastered at all. Crowd noise (such as talking during the set, silverware, laughing, etc.) can be heard above the music at times. During "Round Midnight", one can hear Mr. McAfee stomping his foot in time to the rhythm. Lastly, it is very difficult to hear the vocals clearly. I am confident Ms. Lea has impeccable articulation, but with the reverberations in the room the microphone picks up, her lyrics become indistinct. I understand trying to mix an old release and not being able to get rid of a hiss, or crowd noise, but this album was recorded in 2003 and the ambient noise is very distracting to the listener.
As a tribute to a friend, this album is a wonderful gift. However, the combination of antiquated styles and poor recording techniques makes listening to this album for the most part very difficult. I applaud Ms. Lea for her effort but cannot recommend Our Love Rolls On as quality music.