Thomas Quasthoff: Tell It Like It Is

When Stern magazine declared his “the most beautiful voice in the world,” it was in reference to achievements like his Grammy-winning recordings of Schubert, Mahler and Bach. But early on, thanks to older brother Michael, Quasthoff offset his classical education with keen appreciation for Coltrane, Miles and Dizzy, and forged a lifelong fondness for American soul hits that poured forth from the radio in his native Germany.

Five years ago, the celebrated bass-baritone recorded his first, exceptionally good, jazz album. Now, at 52, he strays again, this time to salute the soul brethren, with equally fine results. But unlike the jazz outing, where Quasthoff put a distinct spin on tunes like “Can’t We Be Friends” and “Watch What Happens,” the intent here is often more imitative than interpretive. Clearly, he has carefully studied the originals and wishes to honor them as precisely as possible.

On “Rainy Night in Georgia,” for instance, Quasthoff meticulously replicates the original Brook Benton phrasing. “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the title track are similarly derivative, though the effect is less Bill Withers and Aaron Neville than Temptations’ bass Melvin Franklin (intentionally or not, a strong influence throughout the album). Elsewhere, particularly on Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind,” there are curious hints of Sammy Davis Jr., while his closing treatment of “Georgia on My Mind,” the singer alone with pianist Frank Chastenier, harkens back to an earlier era, echoing the majesty of Paul Robeson. Unexpected among the soul classics is Randy Newman’s widely debated mid-’70s hit “Short People,” which Quasthoff obviously includes as a playful wink to his own diminutive stature.