(The Professor says you might want to pack a lunch before you tackle this review. It’s going to be a long one…)
Consummate artists like Ana Popovic have high standards for themselves. They have the vision, God knows they have the vision, but they go the extra several miles necessary to bring that vision to fruition. She has set the bar extremely high for herself and every album that she releases is ambitious, challenging, and ultimately a kick ass record of her dream.
Sometimes those dreams take on almost mythical proportions. Like her most recent album, Trilogy, which is available now on ArtisteXclusive Records. As the name implies, it’s three discs that make up this single release. She designed it to be records for different parts of the day with different styles of music for each.
She hasn’t abandoned the blues, indeed she plays a great deal on the album, but she also plays some rock and funk, and stick around for Disc 3 for a wonderful surprise.
For the first disc, Vol. 1 Morning, the musicians are Popovic on vocals, guitar, and slide guitar; Ivan Neville on keys and backing vocals; Jason Clark on keys; Derwin Perkins and Harold Smith on rhythm guitar; Mark Mullins on trombone and horn arrangements; Bobby Campo on trumpet; Jason Mingledorff on tenor sax; George Porter Jr on bass guitar and backing vocal; Jackie Clark and Tommy Sims on bass guitar; Raymond Weber on drums and backing vocal; and Peewee Jackson on drums. Other backing vocals are provided by Angie Primm, Anjelika Joseph, and Erica Falls. Guests on single tracks are Joe Bonamassa on guitar and Robert Randolph on lap steel guitar.
The horns blare and we’re into the first song, I Love You, Tonight. Popovic is swinging her way through some jump blues, and this is the kind of song that can wake you up and get your heart racing even before you’ve had that first cup of coffee. It’s a great song and sets up the album nicely. As you might suspect, Popovic’s guitar break is a killer.
She follows up with the funky She Was A Doorman, another song that gets things jumping. She’s been featuring this one lately in her live shows and her backing band really makes it rock. It would be hard to miss her break on the song and her vocals really have a distinct edge to them. Another cool song.
Another song she’s been showcasing in her live performances is Show You How Strong You Are. It’s funky and one that keeps the mood going from the previous song. Popovic is a master of melding blues with other genres without losing those special things that makes the blues the blues. Aside from the positive message the song brings, it’s just damn fun.
Next up, the horns open Fencewalk, and the band is having a grand time bringing the song to life. The guys are taking the bulk of the backing vocals and it sounds like some of the best soul that came out of STAX mixed with some amazingly hot guitar licks. Popovic’s guitar lights up the song and it’s a wild ride.
She follows up with Train, which features Joe Bonamassa on guitar. If there were ever two guitarists with a closer style, I’m not sure I could name them. Popovic performs this one live as well, and even without Bonamassa’s contributions, she rocks it. Here, on the album, she delivers that smooth soul that we just don’t hear much of anymore. It’s a great change of pace and demonstrates her versatility.
Popovic continues with that sweet soul on If Tomorrow Was Today. She wrote or co-wrote seven of the nine songs on this disc, and she really impressed me with her lyrics. It’s well established that she’s one of the great guitarists working today, for my money one of the best of all time, but not much attention is given to her lyrics. She has a strong style that deals with powerful and often uplifting words and phrases. This is one of those songs.
She follows up with Long Road Down. Here, she is funky and bluesy at the same time. This is another song she’s been showcasing for enthusiastic audiences. Since I’ve talked about her playing and writing, let me mention that she is no slouch on vocals either. She has the ability to sharpen the edge in her voice or to make it purr seductively, and visit every style in between.
Popovic’s cover of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Hook Me Up features am appearance by Robert Randolph on lap steel guitar. The song has plenty of that old-school feeling and Popovic’s guitar plays beautifully. This is a gorgeous song and one that just might make you fall in love with someone. It made me fall in love with her voice, that’s for sure.
She brings the first disc to a close with Too Late. It’s a soft ballad and she pours a great deal of emotion into both her vocals and her guitar. It’s a lovely number.
I couldn’t wait to play the next disc, the one she prepared for Mid Day. So, as soon as this one ended and that last note faded away, it was time to pull that one out and sample the next.
On Vol. 2 Mid-Day, the musicians were Ana Popovic on vocals, guitar, and slide guitar; Michele Papadia and Jason Clark on keys; Jackie Clark and Mark van Mears on bass guitar; Tommy Sims on bass and rhythm guitar; Cody Dickinson on drums and keys; and Stéphane Avellaneda and Edward Cleveland on drums. Backing vocals were provided by Angie Primm. Guest vocal on one song was Al Kapone.
This disc opens with Popovic’s blistering guitar. You Got The Love catches your attention on the very first note. It’s a blues rocker with the emphasis on rocker. The song drives hard and Popovic never lets up on the six-string pyrotechnics. If you like your music with a harder sharper edge, this is the song for you.
She follows up with Johnnie Ray, a darker moodier song. It’s hard not to like this solid number, the lyrics are pure blues and the arrangement is very cool. Popovic’s vocals are quiet and ache with emotion. It’s a beautiful song and I think it’s one that could see quite a bit of airplay.
Next up is Woman To Love, and it is a soulful number with a good blend of rock and funk. It’s also the powerful story of having a woman to love and all of the things that can happen to you when you do have her. Her voice is strong as she describes the feeling of having that woman in your life.
Popovic takes on Curtis Mayfield’s Let’s Do It Again with the help of guest vocalist Al Kapone. Mayfield wrote the song and the Staples Sisters took it to Number One back in the mid 1970’s. You can’t get much more soulful than that pedigree and Popovic’s vocals are spot on. Kapone has guested on a few albums lately and turned in credible performances on each. This is a sweet soul number, and Kapone’s vocal rap is really a nice touch.
Up next is Who’s Yo’ Mama?. The guitar is fast and furious and comes across very swampy. I love the rockabilly feel of this one, simple drum and bass and a guitar that soars into the stratosphere. It’s a great instrumental and man can this group rock.
She slows things down on Wasted, but keeps up the intensity. It’s a well written number and on most albums would be a standout. There is so much good material on this collection however that it’s difficult to crack the top five songs. Still, it’s enjoyable and adds a nice wrinkle to the stories Popovic is telling.
She brings the second disc to a close with Crying For Me. Some nice slide opens along with the drums and her vocals are delivered with a serious edge to them. That’s two discs sampled and now it’s time to visit Ana Popovic late at night.
The last disc, Vol. 3 Midnight, showcases yet another road on Popovic’s musical journey. For this one, the musicians are Popovic on vocals and guitar; Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone and horn arrangements; Khari Allen Lee on alto sax; Roderick “Rev” Paulin on tenor sax; Scott Johnson on baritone sax; Kyle Roussell on piano; David Pulphus and Barry Stephenson on acoustic bass; Herlin Riley and Bernard Perdie on drums.
The acoustic bass of New Coat Of Paint, gives way to a tight horn section and we are squarely in jazz territory. Popovic proves that she can handle a sophisticated jazz vocal with ease. Her band plays like a combo that’s been together for years, anticipating leads and putting out a sound that harkens back to the best night clubs of the jazz age. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Tom Waits song delivered like this, but I would love to hear more…
Next up is a Popovic original, Waiting On You, that shows that she can write jazz as well as she writes the blues. When I saw her on tour, she sampled a few of these songs and her band did a great job playing them, but I do hope to one day catch her fronting a larger band performing all of the jazz songs she might want to sing.
She follows that with Duke Ellington’s In A Sentimental Mood. It’s one of the classic jazz standards and Popovic takes it on like she owns it. The song starts out low and slow with the orchestra coming in also low and building. It’s her vocals that make this song even more special. It’s a gorgeous interpretation.
She follows with Curtis Lewis and Nate Adderley’s Old Country. She handles the vocals like she’s been singing them all her life, and I suspect she has. Coming from Europe, jazz and blues have better reputations than they do in the States, so their influence reaches further. This is a lovely cover and this disc really makes me want to hear so much more like this.
While she just sang Waiting On You a couple of songs ago, here she delivers the number in Double Time Swing. It’s a much quicker tempo and it adds a different feel to the song. I can picture her singing this song in front of a great big band in a Harlem nightclub in the Golden Age. It’s a great version and I love being able to put them side by side.
Her next number is Heaven’s Crying aka Song For The Next Generation, and it features Bernard Purdie on drums. The orchestration is stripped down and it focuses all of the attention onto Popovic’s vocals, and what a job she does on them! Her lyrics are very strong here and it’s one of my favorites over all three discs.
Popovic brings this disc and the entirety of Trilogy to a close on the ballad, You Don’t Know What Love Is. It’s a philosophy that you can’t know what love is until you’ve experienced the pain of loss. It’s a popular sentiment and a beautiful song. It makes a gorgeous sunset for the album, but since she wants us to play this late and night, maybe it’s really a sunrise on another day.
Very few artists would have the nerve to explore jazz, blues, funk, and rock on the same project in the depth that Ana Popovic has on Trilogy. The shear audacity of it, and the ultimate satisfaction that she delivers makes this, in my opinion anyway, her best album to date. I’m sure there will be those that disagree with me, preferring this or that album, and that’s great. I won’t fight your opinion.
I will tell you this, when Popovic performs live, she connects with an audience like few other entertainers. Her guitar playing is electrifying and I easily rank her among the very best that have ever picked up the instrument. Her singing is solid and she delivers a song like nobody’s business, and she knows how to give an audience what it craves.
Trilogy is a challenge that Popovic threw down for herself. The songs she created had to meet her highest standards and so did the musicians that performed them with her. This was not one of those albums where all the tracks were laid down in an afternoon – this took time and careful planning.
We, as music fans, are ultimately richer for her efforts.
Pick up the album as soon as possible and enjoy it. Then go to her website and see where she’ll be playing next. You can find her at http://anapopovic.com/home. As for me, I’m hitting repeat on Disc 3 one more time and revel in her jazz playing.
(All photos of Ana Popovic playing live at the Tin Pan in Richmond, VA are by Jeff Scott, my friend and photographer extraordinaire. Check out his website at http://www.jeffscottshots.com/ where you can find these and many others available for purchase. He’s great and gives me permission to use these on the blog.)