Thomas Quasthoff

Tell It Like It Is

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Classical-pop crossover is almost never a good idea. Those who attempt it from the pop side seem to achieve dire results at best, and their counterparts on the other end of the divide rarely fare much better. While such efforts are laudably ambitious and aesthetically expansive, the fact remains that those who have learned their craft on one side of the fence or the other are simply best qualified to understand that tradition's requirements and most likely to meet them. German classical bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, however, seems to be an unusual exception to this rule of thumb. He began venturing beyond a classical repertoire in 2007 with The Jazz Album: Watch What Happens, on which he successfully tackled the Great American Songbook, and on Tell It Like It Is, Quasthoff takes an even greater leap by venturing into R&B. Unlike others who have attempted similar shifts, Quasthoff leaves the bulk of his classical training on the shelf while tackling pop-oriented material: of course, his spot-on pitch, impressive range, and clarity of tone are like fingerprints that can never be disguised, and they serve him in good stead here. In fact, if one came to Tell It Like Is with no knowledge of Quasthoff's previous work, it would be nearly impossible to guess that he's primarily a classical singer. His graceful understatement, bluesy bends, and undeniable sense of swing -- all marks of a great R&B vocalist -- are brought to bear throughout the album. Quasthoff tends to be more successful tackling straight-up R&B tunes -- including the Ann Peebles hit "I Can't Stand the Rain," Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love," and the Art Neville-penned title track -- than on the more singer/songwriter-oriented cuts, like John Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith in Me" and Randy Newman's "Rider in the Rain." Still, Quasthoff deserves kudos for the acidic sense of humor required to tackle Newman's "Short People," given the disability that affects him. Interestingly, although Quasthoff's classical training never once gets in the way here, his German accent occasionally does; for the most part, he handles the English lyrics deftly, but every once in a while, his nationality peeks out of his voice just a bit, momentarily diverting the focus from the song. Nevertheless, these moments are few and far between, and Tell It Like It Is remains largely a triumph against the enormous odds faced by any classical singer trying to jump over -- however temporarily -- to the pop side of things.

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