African-American-Swedish soprano Barbara Hendricks formed her own label, Arte Verum, in the mid-2000s and has since been pursuing an impressive variety of adventurous projects. The spirit she has shown is exactly the ticket for classical music as it faces challenging times: the solution to its problems lies not in making the music more, or less, user-friendly, but in promoting musical enterprises that are personal, committed, and challenging to the artist involved in terms of pushing her or him into contact with new audiences. The last of these sounds like "crossover," but Hendricks insists that this is not a crossover release and has unkind things to say about the genre in the handsomely produced booklet (in English and French). It is instead, she says, a jazz release. That is somewhat contradicted elsewhere; although Hendricks' early training was in the African-American religious tradition, she sang little jazz during her early years and turned to it only in the 1990s. She says she approaches jazz as a "curious student...still learning so much." The bottom line is that this is a jazz album very much in the crossover vein attempted by other classical singers and it is an excellent example of the genre. The title Barbara Sings the Blues indicates not a special orientation toward blues material (indeed most of the pieces are not blues), but a program conceived as a tribute to Billie Holiday, from whose repertoire most of the music is taken. Hendricks is not Billie Holiday, but she does an extremely artful job of suggesting some of Holiday's vocal trademarks in a subtle way, and, as saxophonist Magnus Lindgren points out, she has a range greater than what most jazz vocalists can manage. The results range from intriguing to spectacular. Hendricks doesn't have the rhythmic control of a top-rank jazz singer, but her voice has entered a particularly rainbow-like phase in her middle age, and Lindgren's quartet adopts a particularly self-effacing stance in order to highlight it. And Hendricks adds something of her own to a few of the high points of Holiday's repertoire. The best comes last, and you could sample it or save it for hearing in its proper place: "Strange Fruit," with which Holiday ended her own shows, has a tragic operatic intensity here. It would be worth the purchase price even if nothing else on the album was, which is far from the case.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim