More than a quarter-century has passed since I laid down hard, cold cash for a Gladys Knight disc, shelling out 66 cents one frosty Saturday in January 1971 for a 45 of “If I Were Your Woman.” At the time, those two-and-a-half sizzling minutes of power pop confirmed my pubescent belief that Knight was the thoroughbred who outpaced all others within Berry Gordy’s expansive stable of female soul-stirrers, an opinion that has never since changed.
Still, I had my concerns about Knight making the late-career leap to Verve, joining that swelling parade of aging popsters, led by Rod Stewart, into the land of jazz standards. Sure, she’s still got the pipes (though, no longer the Pips). But does Knight have what it takes to follow in the footsteps of Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and the other bygone giants who, as the title suggests, she here salutes?
Working with the best a vocalist can hope for—producers Tommy LiPuma and Phil Ramone splitting the 12 tracks down the middle, such estimable players as bassists David Finck and John Clayton, pianist Billy Childs, drummer Jeff Hamilton and guitarist Russell Malone providing sterling backing, and the likes of Roy Hargrove, Chris Botti, Steve Wilson and David “Fathead” Newman dropping by for guest solos—Knight proves, if not necessarily the equal of her jazz heroes, then their canny apostle. But the splendor of Before Me isn’t about echoing great voices of the past, but in hearing a great contemporary voice reborn.