Title: Live at the Paramount
Artist: Ruthie Foster Big Band
Label: Blue Corn Music
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: May 15, 2020
Ruthie Foster delivers a high-powered performance in Live at the Paramount, her ninth album with Blue Corn Music. Complete with the combination of extraneous noise and high energy that inevitably accompanies a live album, Ruthie Foster delivers a big band set that shows off her well-known voice in a swing setting. Recorded at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, on January 26, 2019, John Mills is the music director and conductor of Foster’s big band, and all of the arrangements for this concert are by Mills and John Beasley.
An intriguing version of the Johnny Cash hit “Ring of Fire” is one of the highlights on the album. “This is not your grandfather’s “Ring of Fire,” Foster announces to the audience, and she’s right. Slowed down and stripped of mariachi trumpets, Foster’s version is orchestrated with smooth harmonic lines in the horns and backup voices. Her performance is powerful and passionate, and displays her superb vocal mastery.
The big band setting doesn’t mean Foster has stepped away from the blues. “Runaway Soul” is a great example, climaxing in a duet between Foster and tenor saxophonist Joey Calaruso. “Joy Comes Back” is a gospel tune borrowed from her previous album of the same name, but this new rendition takes on a New Orleans flavor with the big band. Another highlight is a compelling performance of “Death Came A-Knockin’ (Travelin’Shoes),” based on a Gullah Geechie spiritual, which elicits wild applause from the audience.
Closing out the album is a send up to the First Lady of Swing, Ella Fitzgerald. While introducing “Mack the Knife,” Foster tells a story about seeing Ella perform at Rockefeller Center, saying her choice at the time “was either turn the heat on or go see Ella Fitzgerald – what would you do?” Foster swings with vigor and style, performing an admirable tribute to Ella’s “Mack the Knife,” right down to the ascending key shifts and the improvised lyrics associated with Ella.
While the Ruthie Foster Big Band’s Live at the Paramount is a shift from earlier albums, it is by no means a shift in the wrong direction. The combination of Foster’s powerful voice and the vitality of the big band is effective and perfect for a live album.
Reviewed by Anna Hinkley