Legendary Heart

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

The music rolls out of the speakers on the other side of the baby grand piano and on into the cozy living room, where the owner of the home sits, eyes closed, head nodding to the rhythm laid down by the band. She smiles as the sound of her own vocals hits hard on the song's chorus: "I'm travelin', I'm praying, I'm moving on up the King's highway."

The soulful, smoky vocal style is unmistakable. It's the same sound that propelled the song "Rescue Me" to gold-record status back in late 1965. But there's an added depth and maturity that only comes from experience, as well as a deep-rooted spirituality that reflects the singer's unique take on gospel music. It's the sound of one of the finest soul and gospel singers in the world -- St. Louisan Fontella Bass.

"My son wrote the music for that, and we sat down together and I put the lyrics to it," says Bass, leaning forward to make herself heard over the music. "And the title of that song is the title of the whole CD we just recorded."

Travelin', which is set for a March release on Canadian-based Justin Time records, is a family affair for Bass. The recording features Bass, her brother David Peaston and her son-in-law Tracy Mitchell alternating on vocals. It's a hometown effort as well, featuring St. Louis musicians Ptah Williams on piano and the Bosman Twins on saxes and other wind instruments. The recording was done at the Four Seasons studio, located only about a mile away from Bass' University City home.

"I definitely wanted to come St. Louis all the way with this CD," Bass says. "All the musicians, with the exception of the drummer, are from St. Louis, and even he says he'll end up being from St. Louis before he leaves the group. We really have a lot of great talent here in St. Louis, and I feature St. Louis musicians when I tour in Europe, and I want to feature St. Louis musicians on this record." Bass pauses and sighs briefly before continuing: "You know, St. Louis doesn't love me, but I love it."

Like many musicians, Fontella Bass feels overlooked in her hometown. She has toured throughout Europe three or four times a year for most of the past decade. She's especially popular in Italy, where she released a live recording from a 1998 tour, and is building a strong following in Spain as well. But she rarely performs in St. Louis.

"I don't think I've worked in St. Louis in 10 years, except maybe doing a guest appearance here or there," says Bass. "But it's something that happens in every major city, I guess. People just don't want to pay to hear their own local talent. But so what? I live here, and I'm used to it. However, I think St. Louis could be a music center again, like it was when Lester Bowie and Oliver Lake and other musicians were here. That's why I started my group, the Voices of St. Louis."

According to Bass, the Voices concept is designed to showcase the versatility of St. Louis talent for European audiences. "I started the Voices of St. Louis five years ago," she says. "With the help of an Italian friend, Isio Saba, we decided to put together all St. Louis musicians for my tour, and it's really something that became popular everywhere we played in Europe. We called it Voices because we didn't want to concentrate on a single musical style. "Voices' meant the music could go in any direction -- even an instrumental direction."

Although the Voices began with a heavy emphasis on gospel musicians, Bass continues to expand the group into other genres. This year's version of Voices featured the same band that recorded Travelin', and, according to Bass, there are really no musical barriers between her approach to gospel music and the manner in which musicians such as Williams and the Bosman Twins play jazz.

"My choice is gospel," she says. "But people don't realize that all musicians are spiritual in some way. Whatever musical direction you go in, you take that spiritual feeling and you apply it. For instance, Ptah is considered a jazz musician, but he can play gospel with me, he can play standards, he can play ballads. And he can do that because, inside, there's a spiritual connection he has with me and with all the musicians in the band. That's why this record we just made is going to be so unique. It's got me and my brother David and Tracy and Ptah and the Bosmans, and we're all featured. You would think it just wouldn't fit together, but it does."

"I first met Fontella through the members of the World Saxophone Quartet," says Jean-Pierre Leduc, head of the Montreal-based Justin Time Records. "But it was her work with David Murray on our Speaking in Tongues release that really made me want to record a session featuring her talents. But the Travelin' sessions ended up featuring these other great St. Louis musicians as well. The results, I think, are fantastic. Its not a jazz record, it's not blues and it's not what people usually think of as gospel. It's just excellent music."

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."

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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