Even today, more than a decade after discovering Eva Cassidy, listening to her music always brings me an unshakable tinge of melancholy that accompanies the joy and wonderment from hearing her unbelievably perfect voice. I guess it’s difficult to separate these recordings from the tragedy of Cassidy never realizing the fame and acclaim she earned but didn’t receive outside her Washington, D.C. environs until after her premature death from melanoma at the young age of thirty-three.
Fortunately, Cassidy had left behind a vast treasure trove of recordings. A concert souvenir, Live At Blues Alley (1996), was the only record she lived to see released, but she had also taped a whole studio album Eva By Heart that was released months after her passing, and she had previously cut a record co-led by D.C. go-go music legend Chuck Brown. Blix Records assembled some select tracks from these three albums into Songbird in 1998, a record that eventually topped the British charts in 2001. Beyond these artifacts are dozens of demos recorded in the studio of former partner Chris Biondo and additional live recordings, of which some half dozen or so additional albums were assembled. Blix Street had also made these recordings available to a public eager to hear more Eva after getting blown away by Songbird, and Imagine and American Tune topped the UK charts, too (these albums also performed well on American charts).
With the store of demo material now presumably exhausted, this is probably the right time for another compilation that includes choice tracks from those albums released since Songbird, and so today we have The Best Of Eva Cassidy.
Compiling a Best of can be a trickier proposition than a Greatest Hits, but some of these selections are clear fan favorites or ones she was particularly fond of. “Over The Rainbow,” her poignant sign-off song to the world is included of course, as is her striking rendition of Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” Paul Simon’s underrated “Kathy’s Song” and the eternal optimism she exudes on a bluesy take of “What A Wonderful World.” The depths of her soulfulness knows no bounds when she belts out Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” or Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and the easy-swinging hymn “Wade In The Water” gives strong testimony of her as a inspirational singer. Even a sturdy old jazz standard like “Autumn Leaves” is rendered in a bright, new light a old jazz snob like me is unaccustomed to when Cassidy brings unparalleled feeling and sincerity to the lyrics.
The hard core fans might quibble out an omitted track or two — mine is “Woodstock,” her version crushes CSN’s and composer Joni Mitchell’s — but this is an admittedly pretty well-rounded retrospective, covering songs from the pop, soul, Tin Pan Alley, jazz and country realms. Among the styles in which she practiced her art, only the blues tunes are omitted.
The appeal of her recordings doesn’t just derive from her voice (although it begins and ends there); since Cassidy was never signed to a label during her lifetime, virtually all of her work had spare, raw arrangements, which conveniently, was exactly what meshed well with a voice that needed no artificial help, just good material. (The slickly produced anomaly No Boundaries (2000) suggests the damage an opportunistic major label might have done to her artistic integrity, and none of those tracks are represented here). Every one of these songs is lightly accompanied, sometimes by only her acoustic guitar, and I can’t imagine them sounding any better with heavier production.
For those completists who already have all of Cassidy’s prior releases, there’s a new treat awaiting them sequenced right at the beginning of the album: the original voice/acoustic guitar take of “You Take My Breath Away, ” composed by Josephine Claire Hamill, has been beefed up by additional instrumentation from her old band mates Biondo (guitar) and Lenny Williams (piano and string arrangement). It’s very tastefully done, keeping her mesmerizing vocal up front and at the center. The small string section makes a noticeable but unobtrusive entrance right after the first chorus, adding a sublimely measured touch to an already fine recording.
Sixteen years after her death, Cassidy continues to accumulate new fans every day from around the world, because her music ignores classification and the limits that come with it, the only concern being the beauty of song and voice. The Best Of Eva Cassidy gives newcomers to her musical world a convenient starting point for exploration and enjoyment. But, trust me, “the best” of Eva Cassidy can be found in nearly every recorded performance by her.
The Best Of Eva Cassidy goes on sale today (November 19), by Blix Street Records.
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