There is something ultimately redemptive in hearing musicians playing live, where all protective gear in the studio is gone, where there is no mix to fix, where they are just standing in front of an audience, pouring it out, letting it come through them. Too often live recordings are not live at all, as the delicate and sometimes evident flaws that make a performer human are eliminated, erased, and sent into the dustbin of history, thus rendering both the performance inaccurate and the performer somehow less than what she or he is. In other words, the beauty is in the imperfections themselves. Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe by Patty Waters is a true live album. Recorded at a date in San Francisco in 2002, the album is a jazz tribute to Billie Holiday and includes 14 standards. Waters is accompanied by pianist Leonard Thompson and bassist Seward McCain. There is no resemblance to the fiery singer of "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" here. This is the voice of a seasoned interpreter, a singer who despite her somewhat limited range (there's a rasp in the lower end of her voice and a thin, brittle-like quality in its timbre) has an uncanny phrasing ability, singing the lyric of a classic song straight and from the heart and getting at its sinew and marrow. Check "Good Morning Heartache," where the opening line is one of such acceptance that the listener winces at the pain in the grain of her voice. Yet on "Old Devil Moon" she wrings the wry romance with humor and a rough-hewn grace; it's immediate, full of the right kind of anticipatory tension, and a dangerous delight. Waters' respect and honor for the tradition of these songs is evident. Like Holiday, she approaches the songs as if they were secret texts whose truths could be revealed by careful emotive investigation. Her reading of "Willow Weep for Me" is simply breathtaking. It's so frail and vulnerable, and full of a brokenness and desire whose name can only be acknowledged, not spoken let alone touched. She digs deep into the blues vocabulary for the expression necessary and comes up with it, communicating the cracked-heart blues of unrequited love with accuracy, verve, and raw tension. Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe is an accurate, in-your-face recording. It's full of tape flaws, musical imperfections, and even errors. But therein lies its beauty and necessity, not only as a document, but as a high-wire act at full tilt. Waters is a different kind of singer than she used to be. Her power lies in the quiet, shimmering timbres and colors that come from her matter-of-fact delivery. This album is a welcome addition to her catalog.
Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe: Live in San Francisco 2002 Review
by Thom Jurek