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Jimmy Scott - Heaven
(Warner Bros.)

On Heaven, Jimmy Scott stares death in the face; death blinks first. The 71-year-old singer with the improbably high voice treads radically different thematic ground on this, his third album since the resurrection of his career earlier this decade. Not content to cut another majestic set of melancholy songs from the catalogues of Gershwin, Porter, and the like as he did on All The Way and the Mitchell Froom-produced Dream, the singer whose career was revived with the help of supporters like Lou Reed and Ruth Brown now takes on no less weighty a concept than death itself. Jimmy Scott faces up to his existential angst on Heaven, wrapping his rich, breathy vocals around nine songs to create a moving meditation on God, death, and the afterlife that encompasses traditional songs like "Wayfarin’ Stranger" as well as Curtis Mayfield’s "People Get Ready" and Bob Dylan’s "When He Returns."

Heaven would be a maudlin, morbid mess if the voice and brains behind it belonged to just about anyone else. With Jimmy Scott, though, these songs are not sung so much as they’re inhabited by an angelic-sounding spirit. This spirit takes flight on every song here, from the drawn-out phrasing on the title track to the joyful scat run on "What Are They Doing In Heaven Today." Pianist Jacky Terrasson’s remarkably sparse trio arrangements are exactly what the material demands, providing a lush yet lean backdrop which keep the vocals properly upfront throughout. The philosophical weight of Heaven’s songs coupled with the personal investment Jimmy Scott makes in singing each one renders listening with both ears an emotionally challenging enterprise; but for those who can stomach what cartoon Calvin once called "the torment of existence weighed against the horror of nonbeing," the title of this album’s last song applies: "There’s No Disappointment In Heaven."

YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1996