Legendary Heart

Fontella Bass travels the world spreading her soul and gospel, but she's less well known in her own hometown

This has been a banner year for fans of Fontella Bass; her years spent in Paris with her then-husband, the late Lester Bowie, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago are represented on the recently reissued Les Stances à Sophie, a recording that features her work with the group on the album's centerpiece, "Theme de Yoya." Her solo work recorded after her return from Paris in 1973 has also just been compiled as Free. It features the album of the same name and a few loose singles and B-sides. Taken together, these two reissues illustrate the breadth of Bass' inspiration.

And transcending traditional musical genres is something Bass believes is the essence of her own musical personality. It's also something she thinks she's managed to achieve on Travelin'. "I've been playing gospel music since I was 5 years old," says Bass, who still performs weekly at Mount Beulah Missionary Baptist Church on Sundays. "And I learned traditional gospel from my mother, Martha Bass Peaston, and my grandmother, Nevada Carter. But I moved away from gospel when I began to play with Little Milton and Oliver Sain and Lester Bowie. But I came back to gospel in 1990, and that's the style I play."

Fontella Bass: a St. Louis treasure
Mark Gilliland
Fontella Bass: a St. Louis treasure

As the advance CD of Travelin' moves into a cut called "It's Allright,' Bass listens for a few moments, then begins to recite lyrics from the song, half-speaking, half-singing, "When I started on my journey, I was a lost and lonely soul. I didn't know where I was going, or where I wanted to go." She smiles and finishes the story behind the song: "In the lyrics I wrote, I told about Christ coming into my life and how he rescued me. "Rescue me!' I guess it's the same old story, but he did come into my life and give me the peace within to deal with everything. And now I'm comfortable with who I am and the music I do. So it doesn't matter whether this record is a hit or not. I know it's true to what I am and true to what's inside everyone who plays on the record. So it's a blessing."

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