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Music Review: Roberta Flack’s voice remains astonishing

robertaIt’s been more than four decades since Roberta Flack’s alluring, sensational voice was introduced to the public at large via Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut Play Misty For Me, and in particular the spectacular ballad “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

While jazz and soul fans had already embraced the 1969 debut LP First Take, and her name had been on the radar of savvy critics since she’d won a scholarship to Howard University at the age of 15, the Eastwood film made her a household name. She’s since enjoyed numerous big hits, both solo and as a participant in exceptional duets with Donny Hathaway, while earning four Grammys.

Though now in her ’70s, Flack’s voice hasn’t lost its luster or sensuality, as she repeatedly showed Thursday in the opening performance of a three-night stand at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Backed by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra as well as her own group and background vocalists, Flack not only performed several of her greatest hits, but covered tunes from both the Beatles and Marvin Gaye.

She nicely interspersed these within a nearly 70-minute set that also included memories of working with John Lennon (they both resided at one point in NYC’s Dakota Building), and the conversation she had with songwriter Michael Masser that persuaded him to give her the tune “Tonight I Celebrate My Love For You” after RCA turned it down. “He said he was going to give it to Barbra Streisand, and I told him I think I can sing that.”

Flack also had exuberant praise for both conductor Albert-George Schram and the Nashville Symphony, which she called “one of the greatest I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with everyone including Leonard Bernstein and all the best orchestras in the world.”

Such tunes as “Feel Like Making Love” and “Killing Me Softly With His Song” were done in almost the identical, sublime fashion as when they were huge pop and radio hits. Flack’s only concession to aging’s impact comes in terms of on-stage movement and singing pace. She spends the bulk of her time now sitting at the piano, providing nifty interludes and accompaniment, only occasionally taking the microphone in hand and moving out to center stage.

But in terms of vocal projection and intensity, pace, audience interaction and consistent performance, Flack remains both exciting and compelling. The covers included a moving version of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity,” plus the Lennon/McCartney tunes “Hey Jude,” (excellent guitar solos by Sherrod Barnes), and “Here Comes The Sun.” There was also her unusual version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which was preceded by stories about her North Carolina background and weekend singing competitions between her father and uncle.

While no one will ever replace Hathaway as a duet partner, vocalist Derick Hughes’ splendid, rangy and powerful voice makes him a capable substitute. He was quite effective on “Where Is The Love,” “Back Together Again” and particularly “The Closer I Get To You,” where his energetic leads and counterpoint were an ideal complement to Flack’s soothing harmonies and response.

He got his own spotlight during a medley of Gaye tunes. Hughes made “Save The Children” a captivating, gospel-tinged standout. His booming vocals behind Flack’s spoken-word narration gave it emphatic impact.

The Symphony’s opening five-song, 40-minute set included polished versions of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” and Tito Puente’s “Ran Kan Kan.” There was also a well executed medley of Ellington tunes arranged by Ralph Hermann (who also arranged the Porter composition.The best works from the many songs covered included “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Take The A-Train” (though that’s actually by Billy Strayhorn).

They also did a fine pair of classical pieces. “Teufelstanz (Danse Diabolique)” by Josef Hellmesberger II contained challenging sections and movements, while “Danse macabre, Op. 40” by Camille Saint-Saens, was a beautiful, poignant number.

While their set was solid, Flack’s proved more memorable, especially for anyone who remembers her from the ’70s and ’80s. She still sounds wonderful.

IF YOU GO

Roberta Flack headlines a Nashville Symphony pops concert. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17 and Saturday, Jan. 18 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $39 to $138. Call 687-6400 or click here.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on ArtNowNashville.com among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.