THOMAS QUASTHOFF SINGS SOUL

"Why do we make music?" A rhetorical question that Thomas Quasthoff poses unexpectedly in the midst of a longish discussion of Schubert, blinkers, soul and the pros and cons of popular repertoire and classical traditions. "Of course, it's possible to make music with the noble purpose of giving people something intellectual. In the end, though, music has also got to move people. Right here and now. Head and heart. To do that you have to toss out all those pigeonholes." He takes a deep breath and flashes a broad smile. "And that's just where I come in, as the title says: Tell It Like It Is. Nothing more and nothing less." The "man with the most beautiful voice in the world", as the German magazine Stern described him, knows exactly what he's doing. And what he wants. Power of interpretation and unerring sense of taste go hand in hand in performing American songs as well as Italian arias. The extent to which the bass-baritone does justice to his objective of genuinely moving people with his voice is clear from the audience reaction. The material that makes up this album was, unconventionally, "rehearsed live" before the studio sessions. With each of their appearances in February 2010, the singer and his hand-picked instrumentalists worked their way deeper into the pieces. In addition, the applause and "unbounded cheering" (Die Welt) had the effect of singling out certain numbers. And so this album represents "favorite songs" in two senses.

"We grow up with music", Quasthoff replies when asked about the repertoire in this recording. "And for me the transitions were, let's say, very fluid." He then talks about his brother Michael, two years his senior, who had a decisive influence on his musical tastes, from old-time jazz to the avant-garde, "from Bix Beiderbecke to Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson and Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and of course Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, as well as Peter Brötzmann and Alexander von Schlippenbach." Then there were the pop songs that filtered through from the radio, the classical repertoire associated with the early recognition of his talent, and, also from his brother, lots of soul, funk and country songs. "The range really was very, very broad," he emphasizes. "It was always important for me to have a wide horizon. I've always considered it dangerous to be one-sided. If you just put your feelers out a bit, it can be tremendously exciting." And so now, following the huge international success of his "Jazz Album" - its subtitle taken from the Michel Legrand-Norman Gimbel song Watch What Happens - which brought him a Grammy® nomination, Thomas Quasthoff is delving even deeper into his own musical world. "I'm not the new soul discovery, and I'm surely not the one to raise jazz singing in Germany another five levels", he says, a bit dismissively. "But, as I said, that isn't what it's all about. Sometimes there actually are people who simply do things because they like doing them and because it's fun. We're making this album because we get such incredible pleasure from these songs - they're important to me - and because I really enjoy collaborating with these musicians."

In his second album of "non-classical" repertoire with a "troupe of good friends and extraordinary musicians", Quasthoff is collaborating with Wolfgang Haffner on drums, Frank Chastenier on piano and Hammond B-3 organ, Dieter Ilg on bass and Bruno Müller on guitar. The results, produced by Grammy® - winner Jay Newland-who has worked with Norah Jones, Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, Junior Wells and Etta James-are exciting new versions of familiar classics. It's as though Quasthoff, starting out from Stevie Wonder's ballad You And I on the "Jazz Album", has opened a new chapter in which soul and pop favorites also have a place alongside jazz and blues hits. In most of these songs the borders between genres are fluid.

The title song, Tell It Like It Is - familiar in Aaron Neville's original and in later versions by both hard-rock bands and country singers, not to mention Nina Simone, Percy Sledge and Miami Vice star Don Johnson - could have been written for Quasthoff. With his breathtaking rendition, he makes the song his own. That sense of ownership can be heard and felt throughout this production. The soul of the song and that of the singer become one - he penetrates this repertoire, thematically, musically and vocally. You hear that in the wistful Please Send Me Someone To Love by Percy Mayfield (who also wrote Hit The Road, Jack) and Willie Dixon's blues hit Seventh Son. We groove along on his exultant version of Bill Withers's Kissing My Love and on The Whistleman, written by his big brother Michael, his early musical influence, to whom the album is dedicated. You simply believe his every word and every note, whether he's singing John Hiatt's Have A Little Faith In Me or Otis Redding and Jerry Butler's I've Been Loving You Too Long. Then there's the "rain trilogy": Tony Joe White's Rainy Night In Georgia, best known in Brook Benton's 1970 original and Randy Crawford's version from 1981; Ann Peebles's I Can't Stand The Rain, later covered by Tina Turner; and Randy Newman's country caricature Rider In The Rain. And yes, there's also Randy Newman's biggest, "baddest" hit - his ironic Short People - which brought down a heap of controversy on the songwriter-singer back in 1977 and still draws bemused looks when Thomas Quasthoff sings it over 30 years later. "The main thing", insists Quasthoff once again, "is that we have a good time with this music: the listeners, the musicians and, not least, me."

Götz Bühler