- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

Blue

Diana Ross

Motown

Motown is touting “Blue,” a collection of standards from Diana Ross, as a “new” album. But the only thing new here is the news that the legendary label opted against releasing these tracks when they were originally recorded nearly 35 years ago by their biggest female star of the time. That move, we’re told, reflected a calculated decision to promote the diva’s already successful pop music career (Motown released Miss Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning” instead) rather than risk a detour into jazz.

As for the songs, well, we’ve already heard Miss Ross perform many of them — first in the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues,” her Oscar-nominated (though painfully contrived) portrayal of jazz great Billie Holiday, and later in “Diana Ross Live! The Lady Sings … Jazz & Blues: Stolen Moments,” a pay-per-view concert showcase from 1992.

True Ross fans probably already have those albums, which raises questions about the need for “Blue,” a 12-song disc (with three “bonus” tracks included) that went on sale exclusively through Starbucks on Tuesday and arrives in record stores June 20. Originally envisioned as a companion album to Miss Ross’ “Lady Sings the Blues” soundtrack, “Blue” features the then-twentysomething pop star navigating her way through material that feels light-years beyond her grasp both vocally and emotionally.

Not all of “Blue” is bad. Miss Ross has her moments on Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” Ira Gershwin’s “Can’t Get Started With You,” Richard Whiting’s “He’s Funny That Way” and several cuts from the “Lady Sings the Blues” soundtrack, including “My Man (Mon Homme)” and “You’ve Changed.”

Miss Ross’ reed thin voice is helped by the spectacular arrangements of Gil Askey (one of the architects of the legendary Motown sound) and such stellar musicians as trumpeters Harry “Sweets” Edison and Teddy Buckner, plus tenor sax man Ernie Watts.

Yet no amount of muted horns or surging strings — gimmicks used far too frequently on “Blue” — can mask Miss Ross’ lack of range. “[Our] Love Is Here to Stay,” one of her better numbers from “Lady Sings the Blues,” employs the same arrangement as the film soundtrack but suffers here when her voice cracks on a sustained note in the second verse. After 35 years, and given the wizardry of today’s recording studios, you wonder why it simply wasn’t edited out.

Earlier, an egregious up-tempo reading of George Gershwin’s “I Loves Ya Porgy” is almost laughable … until you remember that we’re being asked to pay to hear her sing it.

Back when Motown originally chose to shelve this project, the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae were still performing, so Miss Ross’ renditions of these standards would surely have invited cruel comparisons. Today, some 35 years later, other aging pop stars such as Rod Stewart and Carly Simon are offering their own unique — and often better — spin on the Great American Songbook.

In retrospect, it appears Motown had it right the first time.


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