By Ben Windham , Editorial Editor
“Elana James”(Snarf Records)
Being gorgeous hasn’t hurt her career a bit but Elana James is a top-drawer musician as well. She’s simply one of best fiddle players around.
She also has a pleasant voice. Unfortunately it isn’t always well suited for the material on her new release, “Elana James” on Snarf Records.
James came into the public eye as the featured vocalist/fiddler in the Hot Club of Cowtown. The band, based in Austin, drew its inspiration from both the Hot Club du France, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s jazzy ensemble; and Texan Bob Wills’ Western swing. But Cowtown ultimately imploded.
Bob Dylan promptly persuaded James to sing and play violin with his regular touring group. It was one of the most controversial moves in recent years for the Minnesota bard; fans are still arguing whether the obvious electricity that crackled between Dylan and James on stage was more than musical.
In any event, she suddenly disappeared from the band, then returned — and then left for good.
Now she’s back as a solo artist with much of the old Cowtown lineup on her new album, augmented on a couple of cuts by Texas swing legend Johnny Gimble.
When she sticks to what she does best — the sophisticated Parisian-style swing of her originals like “Twenty-Four Hours in a Day” or “Oh, Baby” — James’ new album, scheduled for release next month, really cooks. Her breathy vocals neatly match the music, her fiddling is hot (though not always inventive) and her little band swings like mad.
The rhythm section of Beau Sample on bass and Mark Hallman on brushes is particularly strong, providing a firm foundation for the piano, guitar and fiddle leads.
Curiously, it’s when James tried her hand at Western swing that the album falls short. The playing is fine but a piece like the reworking of “Goodbye Liza Jane” demands a hard-core Texas voice — a Carrie Rodriguez, say, or a Sunny Sweeney — rather than James’ well-scrubbed vocals.
The same is true on “Run Away With Me,” though it’s partly redeemed by a hint of playful sexiness in James’ singing.
All is forgiven, however, when James sings Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” The laid-back arrangement effectively showcases her sultry vocal work, accented by Bruce Brackman’s woody, throaty clarinet. Hands down, it’s the best piece on the album.
Another jazz chestnut, Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You,” isn’t far behind.
There’s a lot more to like. James’ tip of the hat to her former employer on Dylan’s “One More Night” is pleasant enough. She holds her own with Gimble on the Western swing instrumental “Silver Bells.” And her own “All the World and I” is a complete departure, a multi-tracked folk vocal with an Appalachian feel (though it’s miles away from what I’d call real roots music).
Overall, it’s a good debut, but the album could use more focus. I’d love to hear James do an entire collection of jazz standards, for instance. If they turned out as well as the Ellington and Blake pieces here, then that would be a collection for the ages.