Online since August 2002

Atypical, and all the better for it

Reviewed February 2010

Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues
Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues
By various artists

Putumayo World Music: 2010

To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.

When a new Putumayo World Music collection arrives on the desk of an American msuic reviewer, it's usually a voyage of absolute discovery – whether Parisian street music, Brazilian carnival music or Turkish pop, Putumayo has always specialized in themed collections.

And so when Putumayo turns its sights on an American style of music – in its most recent case, rhythm & blues – it gives American fans a chance to kind of weigh Putumayo's approach in compiling these collections, if only because we're more familiar with the music at hand.

In the case of the new R&B collection, it is neither comprehensive (how could a single-disc compilation possibly approach that?) nor predictable. Rather than the Motown, Philly or Memphis script one usually finds in histories of R&B, the Putumayo collection opens by taking us from Texas (Lavelle White) across the pond to England (James Hunter), eventually taking in Miami (Sam Moore) to LA (Keb' Mo') and back to New Orleans (Irma Thomas).

And unlike most compilations, there aren't really any hits here – at least not by the artists who made them. Rather than the late Koko Taylor, we get Sam Moore, Keb' Mo' and Angie Stone on Taylor's big blues hit "Wang Dang Doodle." There aren't even any of the usual R&B standards.

Nor is there any sort of chronological order here: Lavelle White is a throwback R&B pioneer, as are Moore and Irma Thomas. The late Snooks Eaglin was a bluesman who came to minor prominence (although beloved by hardcore blues fans) during the blues renaissance of the 1960s. But then also included here are young neo-soul artists like Hunter, Cracked Ice and Ruthie Foster. And they're all mixed up in order on the 12 tracks.

So this isn't anylike like what we Americans are used to in compilations or introductions to American music styles – and yet, it's a heck of a collection. Odds are that unless you're already part of the neo-soul scene, you're not familiar with Foster, Hunter or Cracked Ice. But my goodness, buy this CD and you'll surely want more from each of them. Foster's ethereal yet husky voice recalls Carla Thomas in her prime; Cracked Ice advertises itself as a NYC party band, but boasts a lineup drawn from the tours of the Rolling Stones, James Brown and Solomon Burke (and features Catherine Russell on vocals, see more on her below) – and not since the Average White Band has a white guy from Great Britain captured the sound of black American music the way Hunter does.

While Eaglin is generally considered a blues musician, he certainly fits in here with his funky backbeat and his soaring vocals. As does jazz singer Russell, whose strong blues influences and country twang recall the melding of styles some 60 years ago that simultaneously gave us R&B and rock 'n' roll.

Finally, anyone who saw last year's film "Soul Men," about a mythical set of career backup singers (played by Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mac) who finally get their shot in the spotlight will love the track by Rockie Charles. After several decades backing up soul singers like O.V. Wright, Little Johnny Taylor and Roscoe Shelton, Charles finally got his own chance in the 1990s – and we're the beneficiaries of that change in fortune.

This is definitely not your standard intro to or overview of rhythm & blues. It's a sideways look at one of the most American of popular music styles, one that reaches into its glory years of the 1960s but also looks forward with young artists who may not find fortune nor fame with this style, but who are finding happiness performing it nevertheless.

If this is how the brain trust at Putumayo pulls together all their collections from around the world, it's no wonder they've become such an iconic brand.

Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif., and was a contributor to the "Grove Press Guide to Blues on CD" (1993) and "The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Blues" (2005).

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