At the time of Amy Winehouse's death on July 23, the celebrated soul-ska singer hadn't really released much in the way of music. Though Frank was recorded in 2003, the album wasn't released in the U.S. until late 2007—after her second album, Back to Black, became an American sensation in 2006, winning her five Grammys. As Burt Bacharach noted a bunch of weeks ago during my at-home conversation with him, "Most people don't realize that it's still hard for many new British artists to release albums here."
Instead, Winehouse found fame in the U.S. as a YouTube penny dreadful. There were dozens of video clips of her as teen on British TV with big bands, club appearances as a rising star, and slick videos for songs that weren't yet on CD. After her success, these clips were followed by darker ones showing her running from photographers, being busted for drug possession, coping with an abusive marriage, and finally making groggy concert appearances.
Now it turns out that Winehouse had been busy for years recording all kinds of high-test material. On the newly released Lioness: Hidden Treasures (Universal Republic), we hear recordings of Winehouse over a nine-year period singing originals, covers and alternate versions of hits in her meowing, Ronnie Spector-like style.
Some of the material on the 12-track Lioness has been in the can for years. Other tracks were on the flight deck in preparation for her next album. Taken as a whole, Lioness is eclectic, sassy and ultimately haunting given her untimely passing. Much credit goes to her long-time producers Salaam Remi [pictured] and Mark Ronson, who cobbled together the album after listening to folder after folder of in-house recordings.
Lioness opens with a ska version of Our Day Will Come from 2002, when Winehouse was fresh and ambitious. It's a humid interpretation of Ruby and the Romantics' [pictured] bossa nova version from 1963. The reggae beat gives Winehouse plenty of space to work her London drawl, and she applies emotion strategically to the cover while still managing to honor Ruby Nash's original lead vocal.
Between the Cheats is a bump and grinder from 2008 that was planned for her third album. A friend today called the more recent tracks like this one Amy in Satin—a witty reference to Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin album, on which the singer was clearly ailing but still pulled off a masterpiece. I don't know that I'd go that far, since Winehouse isn't struggling but creating and reassembling on the fly.
Winehouse's Tears Dry on Their Own, a Valerie Simpson song, is a soul-ballad version of her more up-tempo rendition from Back to Black. I actually like the song more here, since her delivery isn't rushed and the slower pace gives her time to innovate and improvise.
Valerie, one of the album's many high points, is given a slow, techno-gospel treatment. The song originally was written and recorded by the Zutons in 2006, and Winehouse's first recording of the song turned up on Back to Black: B Sides. On this rendition, the backup vocalists are gone. There's still pointed urgency and attitude, but the approach is much more serious and mature.
In 2002, when Winehouse was 18, she traveled to Miami to record with producer Remi. There, she took on The Girl From Ipanema. What you hear is the birth of an enormous talent as Winehouse gives the song a loosey-goosey, swing-scat treatment. You also hear that Winehouse knew her stuff, since she playfully stays within the song's pop parameter but finds a variety of creative ways to make it her own. Think Cindy Lauper [pictured] meets Astrud Gilberto.
Body and Soul from Tony Bennett's Duets II is here, as is a pained cover of Leon Russell's A Song for You.
After you listen to Lioness a few times, you come to realize that Winehouse's passing was even more tragic than we thought. Her potential clearly was enormous, and from a jazz listener's standpoint, she was in the process of creating a more progressive and belligerent style of jazz singing. By any measure, her loss is staggering and a setback for music. The good news, if there is any good news, is that there seems to be plenty of superb material yet to come.
JazzWax clip: Here's Amy Winehouse singing The Girl From Ipanema. It's a delightfully free interpretation...