St. Louis' own Fontella Bass is back with a new recording, Travellin', her first U.S. release since 1995's soul-stirring, gospel-centered No Ways Tired (Nonesuch/American Explorer). The considerable gap between recordings doesn't mean Bass has been slacking off. Although her local performances are mostly limited to singing on Sundays at Mount Beulah Missionary Baptist Church and other religious functions, Bass has made herself something of a household name on the European concert and festival circuit.
The new CD -- on the Canadian-based Justin Time label, home of the World Saxophone Quartet -- gives Bass a chance to shine on such traditional gospel tunes as "In the Garden," "Walk With Me," "Thank You Lord" and "It's Alright Now" and her own composition "Travellin'." But the recording also provides plenty of opportunities in the spotlight for the Voices of St. Louis -- singer David Peaston, guitarist Tracy Mitchell, pianist Ptah Williams, sax players Dwayne and Dwight Bosman, bassist Jimmy Hinds, drummer Curtis Fondren and keyboard player (and Bass' son with ex-husband Lester Bowie) Bahnamous Bowie. Peaston, Bass' brother and a talented gospel/R&B singer and musical-theater talent in his own right, sings lead on "Special Lady" and "Round & Round." Peaston's smooth, deep vocals fit nicely into the slick contemporary-soul groove laid down by the backing band, and his soaring falsetto adds a unique touch to "Special Lady." But the family connections don't end there. Bass' son-in-law Mitchell sings lead on "Waiting," and her son co-produced the CD with her, in addition to co-writing and arranging several tunes. As longtime members of Bass' extended musical family, both Williams and the Bosman Twins get their turns to show off. "Mandela," a strong instrumental written by Williams, features the local favorite executing some of his trademark high-energy solo turns. On "DB Blues," a familiar favorite in any Bosman Twins set, Dwight and Dwayne unleash some catchy jazz/funk riffs.
Not surprisingly, though, the real treasures of Travellin' are the tracks on which Bass sings. On "It's Alright Now," she adds her own heartfelt lyrics to the Jessy Dixon tune, describing the way Christ came into her life to rescue her and making a not-so-subtle allusion to "Rescue Me," the soul classic that jump-started her career in 1965. On the title cut, Bass' stirring vocals combine the emotionalism of gospel with the improvisational qualities of jazz -- a sonic fusion explored effectively by the likes of Al Green, Van Morrison and very few others. On "In the Garden," the listener is treated to pure, unadorned Fontella as she accompanies herself on acoustic piano. It's a transcendent musical moment -- and worth the five-year wait.