Leon Redbone entered the 1990s with the baker's dozen of selections on Sugar (1991), one of his best overall efforts to date. His unique and unmistakable interpretations of obscure jazz and early popular melodies are augmented by the occasional and equally singular original composition. The tunes are carefully crafted in such a way that they ably augment Redbone's distinct vocals, which vacillate between a gravel-voiced mumble and full-bodied bellow. In keeping with the musical persona he'd established for himself, the arrangements are often a synthesis of the refined jazz stylings of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, with essential nuggets of traditional American folk, blues and pop. The opening "Ghost of the St. Louis Blues" is the perfect case in point, as the tastefully scored string section caresses the mid-tempo pace. Asleep at the Wheel member Cindy Cashdollar's twangy dobro and Bob Mastro's sweet mandolin frail earmark the rural sleepy waltz "Roll Along Kentucky Moon." Comparatively spry are "Right or Wrong," the title track "Sugar," and a standout cover of "When I Take My Sugar to Tea," which are a rousing mixture of freewheeling ragtime and the playfulness of Django Reinhardt's days in the aforementioned Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Another adeptly executed remake is "Pretty Baby," capturing all the charm of Al Jolson's best-known rendering, yet the artist provides a freshness in this interpretation, making it unquestionably his own. Redbone supplies a few of the album's more memorable sides, such as the jaunty wordless "Whistling Colonel" and the understated and intimate repose of "So, Relax." The closing instrumental "14th Street Blues" is brought to life by the honey toned clarinet of Ken Peplowski, whose tenure in the modern re-creation of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra is evident by the redolent soul he brings to the performance. Longtime enthusiasts will not be disappointed with Sugar and curious parties will similarly find it a great entrée into Redbone's catalog.
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AllMusic Review by Lindsay Planer