In May, when HBO premiered Bessie, starring a sharply cast Queen Latifah as blues legend and vocal-jazz pioneer Bessie Smith, the company ensured it was as truthful as it was entertaining. The same high standards extend to the soundtrack. Latifah dominates the album, filling seven of its 17 tracks with her gutsy interpretations of such Smith gems as “Young Woman’s Blues,” “Work House Blues” and “Long Old Road.” Smith, whose rise to superstardom predated the advent of microphones, was a classic blues shouter. Latifah, though more soulful than blues-steeped, effectively transforms her style, emulating not only Smith’s rafter-rattling prowess but also her sly way with a lyric.
The balance of the soundtrack interweaves delights old and new. Period material from Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and lesser-known songstress Sippie Wallace (serving up the coquettishly risqué “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman”) has been painstakingly remastered. Purists might object to the inclusion of Kid Ory’s update of “Ballin’ the Jack,” recorded in 1954, 17 years after Smith’s death, but the track feels right at home. Among the contemporary contributors, vocalists Tamar-kali and Carmen Twillie winningly invade the songbook of Smith mentor Ma Rainey, while Cécile McLorin Salvant adds a coy rendition of “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” that sounds freshly plucked from 1928. And, at disc’s end, Smith herself makes an appearance, technologically twined with Latifah on a rollicking “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.”