A Milwaukee secret treasure, Penny Goodwin recorded just two albums in the 70's, and this is her debut, released on Sidney Records in the first half of the decade. The singer is simply fantastic: she has a rich dark voice, strong and tender at the same time, and a very peculiar style, influenced by Sarah Vaughan, plus injected with a strong gospel feel and with Shirley Horn's emotional reading of the lyrics. She is one of those people who do not just sing a song, but also turns it into a story of her own, so that you can really believe every word she says. The material she recorded for this set is simply amazing, with its predominance of socially-conscious tracks, like her cover of Roberta Flack's underrated gem "Trade Winds", and a stunning, unpredictable, jazz-drenched take on Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" (combined with the old spirituals "John Brown's Body" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"), which is surely the best one I've ever heard after the original. Some of the tunes have an introspective, jazzy afterhour feel, like "Today is the first day (of the rest of your life)", "He's come back" and "Rain sometimes" (a Ray Hamilton track, previously recorded by Matt Monro in 1967, and covered by Peggy Lee in 1970), others have a more soulful bent, like the deep, funky "Too soon you're old", an opus about the relationship between a woman's age and her approach to life and to the other sex. Another great track is "That's allright with me", a song that was originally written for Esther Phillips' Kudu debut "From a whisper to a scream": a sweet, nocturne ballad, that requires great vocal and emotional skills to be delivered; for what I know, this here is the sole cover of the tune, and what masterpiece it is! Her abilities are shown also in "Lady Day and John Coltrane" (one of Gil Scott-Heron's best tunes), and the rare "Slow hot wind", a Henry Mancini theme that Sarah Vaughan had done in a Bob James-arranged album dedicated to the composer: Penny's version is even more atmospheric, complexe and infectious than Vaughan's, and you know that matching Sarah is clearly not an easy task. The album closes with the best version of "Amazing Grace" that I've ever heard in my whole life, and it's all said. The arrangements, rich and rhythmically various, are courtesy of pianist/organist Ray Tabs, but the six-piece string section (that sounds like a much bigger one) is managed by Richard Evans. Guitarist Phil Upchurch and saxophonist/flutist Don Myrick are featured on some tracks.
This album is one of those who leave a deep trace on the listener, it's meant to capture your attention and make you enjoy the beauty of the music; it's a real pity that this singer, who finds her place between Nina Simone and Roberta Flack, has disappeared from the recording scenes. She could deal with jazz, gospel funk and soul, as only masters can do. I hope that, provided that she is still alive (I couldn't find any biographical detail), she will return to the studios. I'm searching for a Japanese issue of Penny's unreleased live tracks, simply called "Penny Goodwin Live": I'm very curious to hear how she sounds on stage.