Ron Sunshine's mix of jazz, soul, and blues is always a little different from album to album. This time out the vibe is classy late-'50s/early '60s R&B with a small horn section and lots of blues shuffles. The horns and the pianist will sometimes play jazz harmonies, but in general the feeling is more down-home than his more swing-oriented efforts were -- though we're talking fine distinctions here; he's not changing styles, just shifting leanings by degrees.
Sunshine's broad tastes show in his cover of Charlie Rich's "Who Will the Next Fool Be," and his vocal is every bit as effective in his own style as Rich's or Bobby Bland's versions -- Sunshine can do covers without fearing comparisons to either the originals or to other covers; he pulls off "I'm Shakin'" (made famous by Little Willie John) with natural swagger where Jack White's version strains for effect. Sure, he's not Ray Charles's equal on "Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I)," but brother, NOBODY tops Ray; the thing is, Sunshine finds his own way to sing it that puts the song across in an emotionally moving way that sounds organic and unforced. He's got a masterful vocal technique honed over decades of singing, but he deploys that technique subtly, always sounding natural, never over-reaching. The same can be said of his harmonica playing, though the vigorous joy with which he plays makes his mouth-harp virtuosity more evident.
The heart of the album, though, is not the three covers, it's the seven original songs -- four co-written with saxophonist Craig Dreyer (not playing on this album, but a long-time collaborator), two with Sunshine's old compatriot on the '90s downtown roots scene, Joe Flood, and an instrumental by just Sunshine. The lyrics fit the musical style without recycling familiar tropes; these are not pastiches, they are modern, intelligent lyrics, clever without being arch. That's how to carry on tradition: be true to its roots while updating its sensibilities. The tradition is in good hands on Bring It Home.
The album is released today (Friday, November 20), and Sunshine and his band celebrate with two New York shows this weekend: tonight at Swing 46 swing46.com, 9:30 PM - 1 AM, and Saturday at JCC Manhattan www.ronsunshine.com/event/swing-remix-at-the-jcc-in-manhattan, 8:30 PM. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.