Jean Carne ‘Don’t Let It Go To Your Head: The Anthology’ 2CD (SoulMusic) 5/5

Singer Jean Carne occupies a special place in the hearts of UK vocal jazz and soul devotees alike. For the former, her vocals on the Black Jazz albums by Doug Carn were an introduction for many to a more spiritually oriented form of jazz and on an independent label that barely registered among older mainstream jazz fans in the 1970s. For soul and jazz fans, the Philadelphia International recordings blended the smoother instrumentation of that label’s collective of musicians while adding some soulful lyrics from the top songwriters of the day. The result was both a critical and commercial success and something about the sheer vulnerability and range of that voice endeared fans and that devotion to her music has continued ever since. Street Sounds brought out a wonderful two LP set of her work in the 1980s, but bizarrely this is the first UK overarching anthology on CD that covers three labels, even though some of the Philly International, TSOP and Motown albums have been re-issued on various labels in the States.

Similar to Phyllis Hyman, Jean Carne’s career straddled different if complementary genres in jazz and soul, yet unlike Hyman, record companies were more comfortable in allowing Carne to exert her judgement in fusing the two. Maybe, it was simply that in the case of Philadelphia International, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had a built-in admiration for jazz and incorporated elements of both genres into their music. Certainly, members of MFSB were all jazz devotees to the core and saw no ambiguity whatsoever in recording on dancefloor albums as well as more sedate and soulful or jazzy affairs. That is reflected in the varying tempos of this selection and the one common denominator is the quality of the music that never ever diminishes. Thus, the soul-dance anthems still retain a deeply jazz-inflected quality with ‘Free Love’, ‘If You Wanna Go Now’ and especially ‘Don’t Let It Go To Your Head’, all outstanding and definitive examples of how jazz and soul can combine effortlessly when in the right hands, and make no mistake about it, Jean Carne fully comprehended both and was totally at ease in either idiom. A stunningly sophisticated cut in, ‘My Love Don’t Come Easy’, has become one of several soul-boy classics here, while for modern soul fans, it may just be the duet with Glenn Jones, ‘Sweet and Wonderful’, that just wins the day. For this writer of all the dance-oriented numbers, one nevertheless stands out and that is the immortal, ‘Was That All It Was’, which fittingly here is heard in all its 12″ glory. That beats a close contender in second position and still an all-time modern soul classic, ‘I’m Back For More’, duetting this time round with Al Johnson.

Quality soul ballads are not short in number either, with ‘Time Waits For No One’, and a real favourite of this writer in the socio-politically tinged, ‘A Lonely Girl In A Cold, Cold World’, while The O’Jays’ ‘Love Don’t Love Nobody’ deserves the highest praise and Jean Carne could always count on the very best songwriters from Gamble and Huff to McFadden and Whitehead, through to Cynthia Biggs and Dexter Wansel.

There is, however, another side to Jean Carne that cannot be ignored and that is her jazz side. The second CD rightly focuses on some of her collaborative work, guesting with other musicians. With Norman Connors, a stunning laid back rendition of the Jobim classic, ‘Dindi’, here receives the sparsest interpretation one could possibly imagine and yet still manages to capture the very essence of the song’s meaning, while with the same drummer as leader, Carne recorded another classy jazz number in, ‘Valentine Love’. A personal favourite is the reprise as a medley of two songs Jean Carne cut at Black Jazz records. As a young singer with then husband Doug, Carne would take a jazz instrumental and add lyrics to it. While not reaching quite the spiritual heights of the original ‘Revelation’/’Infant Eyes’, the latter a Wayne Shorter Blue Note original, still has the ability to move one’s soul. Factor in elsewhere her later work from the mid-1980s and early 1990s with Roy Ayers and Dexter Wansel respectively and you have a supremely rounded overview of the singer. This project was clearly a labour of love for anthology compiler and sleeve notes writer, David Nathan, who interviewed her on many occasions and became a good personal friend. If you have longed for your absolute must have Jean Carne songs in one place with no filler whatsoever, then this is now your first port of call. That said, the original albums are so strong, you will undoubtedly want them too.

Tim Stenhouse