There is an elite of singers who are so precociously gifted that they can turn their hand to disparate musical genres and still excel. Aretha Franklin at her peak was equally adept in gospel, blues, even jazz, as well as a towering disciple of soul. Jean Carn and Anita Baker could similarly be at ease both in soul and jazz idioms, and Phyllis Hyman most definitely belongs in this extraordinary category of special female voices, yet major commercial success, with the odd exception, would largely eluded her, and, as a direct consequence, she became tortured by this lack of awareness of her true talent, and indeed her ability to transcend soul and jazz at will.
The first CD focuses on some of the classic soul sides that Hyman cut and includes her biggest hit of all, and one that gently creeped into the higher echelons of the UK pop charts in 1979, the anthemic soul boy tune, ‘You know how to love me’, which here is heard in its full length album version. Everything came together with the jazzy orchestrations and delightful flute over an instantly catchy soulful dance rhythm section. It never ceases to appeal and is a definitive example of modern soul music. Almost as popular with soul fans is, ‘Under your spell’, which has become something of a real burner of a song that, as time has progressed, has grown in stature and popularity. In a way, Phyllis Hyman was wrongly pigeonholed as an end of era disco diva, and, while her photogenic looks certainly might hint at that persona, she was far more talented and able to handle slower, more intimate material, and this is reflected in the music she recorded pre-1979. Her mastery of soul ballads, with a strong dose of jazzy improvisation, is discernible on songs such as ‘Be careful (how you treat my love)’ and ‘Why did you turn me on?’, yet while soul aficionados lapped up her versatility, record executives only viewed the singer through the narrow prism of hit sales and forced the singer down the dance route which was always going to be too restrictive. Quality duets with Michael Henderson were aired on late night soul radio stations, with, ‘Can’t we fall in love again’, a prime example of how Hyman could join forces to create something of lasting value. Even the more danceable material was delivered with such panache, as on ‘Living inside your love’ and ‘Loving you, losing you’, both of which are heard here in 12″ extended versions and are further examples of how the singer could integrate jazz into an uptempo soulful beat and manage to pull it off.
The second CD expands out to reveal another side to Phyllis Hyman’s career that hitherto has been severely underplayed, namely her love of jazz music and her numerous collaborations with jazz musicians. Hyman performed in Broadway musicals and ‘Sophisticated lady’ proved to be a critical and commercial success, and from this repertoire, ‘In a sentimental mood’, captures the jazzy side to the singer, and the only shame is that she never cut a live album in a jazz idiom. Even Chaka Khan, best known for her funk and soul sides, was able to illustrate her love of jazz, but sadly in Phyllis Hyman’s case, she had to guest on other musicians albums in order to showcase her jazz credentials. Thankfully, a major plus of the second CD is to provide the wider picture and include her excellent jazz output. That includes the jazz-soul material under jazz drummer and producer Norman Connors with ‘Betcha by golly wow’ and ‘We both need each other’, another duet with Michael Henderson. It also, however, included straighter ahead jazz music such as the wonderful, ‘Love surrounds us’, backed by the great jazz pianist McCoy Tyner and a host of jazz luminaries. Who would have thought Pharoah Sanders would invite a singer on board, but he did, and, ‘As you are’, is a fine example of how the tenor saxophonist could adapt, and Norman Connors performs as drummer on the album. Another saxophonist, Grover Washington Jr., spotted Phyllis’ unique voice and invited her to guest on ‘Sacred kind of love’, which has something of a gospel undercurrent in the lyrics at least. Not every experiment was always a resounding success, but Phyllis Hyman was a singer who always strived to better herself and fought as best she could against the conformity of the music industry that demanded more of the same,
Twelve pages of detailed historical notes by writer A. Scott Galloway and a further personal tribute by label owner David Nathan leave the reader in no doubt as to how important and talented a singer Phyllis Hyman was, and how she left an indelible mark on all those who witnessed her live, interviewed her, or quite simply breather in her musical output. An outstanding homage to the life and career of Phyllis Hyman and one that covers all the important aspects of her career. Separate albums covering her PIR tenure are easily available to round off the end of her musical life.