Joe Cocker - Heart & Soul (NewDoor, 2005)

Dropping unexpectedly straight out of left field and right onto my list of the year's best albums thus far is this new set from Joe Cocker (thanks to Dave and Ellen for the tip). Now Cocker's career has certainly had its moments over the years but the last time I can remember specifically setting out to buy a Joe Cocker album, it had songs on it like "Delta Lady" and "With a Little Help From My Friends" and the year was 1969. I know I'm not the only one who tends to think of Cocker more in terms of John Belushi's spastic Woodstock impression (peformed onstage while Cocker sang on SNL) than Cocker's real talent as a vocalist.

Thirty-six years later, Heart & Soul finds Cocker at the top of his vocal form, in total control of the gruffness factor, dispensing it when needed to best effect. Not only does Cocker prove that he's most definitely still got it as a singer, but somehow he became the recipient of one of the best jobs of album production I've heard in many a day. Producer Jeffrey C.J. Vanston's prior career credits as a session keyboard player give no hint of the amazing work he's apparently capable of as a producer and arranger. The recording quality is superb, you could demo your sound system with this disc. Cocker's treatment of the material is just right, showing a vocal range that is still surprising even though we're well familiar with his voice after all these years.

The selection of musicians for these sessions is the next amazing thing about Heart & Soul. Hire a guitarist of Mike Landau's caliber to play a session and you're assured of a high quality result, at least in the guitar department. Bring two or even three such guitarists to a session and you've got an embarassment of riches. Vanston and Cocker are the beneficiaries on these sessions of the talents of, get this, Mike Landau, Dean Parks, Jeff Beck, Shane Fontayne, Steve Lukather, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, and Eric Clapton. Some tracks use three and even four of the above on the same song.

On Heart & Soul, Cocker abandons his historical penchant for mixing well known cover tunes with previously unknown compositions, and here offers an album of strictly well known standards of recent vintage. The song selection may seem a little safe, but there's no denying that these tunes are all great, and they are given the best possible arrangement and performance both instrumentally and vocally. Between Cocker's incredibly soulful vocal, and the inspired addition of Jerry Goodman's violin solo, I think you'll not hear a better version of U2's "One" which leads off the record. Cocker seems to have a deep well of soulfulness which he brings to bear on tracks like Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," the Aretha Franklin classic "Chain of Fools," and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You."

John Lennon & Paul McCartney's solo material has not been covered anywhere near as often as their Beatles tunes have, but Cocker takes Paul's "Maybe I'm Amazed" to new heights with stellar guitar work by Landau, Parks, Fontayne and Lukather. Cocker also acquits himself quite well on the more difficult Lennon solo song, "Jealous Guy," with Landau on the left, Parks on the right, and Lee Sklar on bass. Producer Vanston performed all the music on a couple of the tracks, R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" and the James Taylor standard "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight."

Chris Botti shows up to add his trumpet to the Madonna hit "Love Don't Live Here Anymore." Lieber & Stoller are represented twice with nice verisons of "I (Who Have Nothing)" and "I Keep Forgetting." The Robert Palmer classic "Every Kinda People" sounds equally good. The U.S. release of Heart & Soul also adds a bonus track, a live version of "One" recorded October 30, 2004 during "Night of the Proms 2004" in Antwerp, Belgium, performed with Il Novecento conducted by Robert Groslot, with additional musicians on traditional rock instruments including John Miles on keyboards and Laurie Wisefield on guitar (anyone remember Wishbone Ash?). Now sixty years old, Joe Cocker has never sounded better and has never released a better record than Heart and Soul.


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