Sonja Lee Band

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CD Review

Washington Blues Society

Washington Blues Society Bluesletter

In researching a piece I was going to write on the Centrum Fundraising event, held last May at Seattle’s Triple Door, I ran across Sonja Lee, an artist who was performing with Centrum Acoustic Blues Festival Artist Director Daryl Davis. I didn’t recognize her at first, so I looked her up.

 Sonja Lee’s web site features several sound bites, and I was instantly impressed by the Bellingham resident’s wonderful jazz meets blues vocals. Sonja’s band is a harmonious blend of a veteran rhythm section on bass and drums with guitar, sax and piano provided younger players.

Sonja expertly mines the jazz and blues vaults for 14 chestnuts and nails every one of them. Several other local women, notably Mia Vermillion, Stickshift Annie and Dana Lupinacci have also had success with this format, and I would easily put Sonja Lee in their league.

The version of Peggy Lee’s He’s A Tramp has a distinctly jazzy feel while Hound Dog-Big Mama Style has a touch of blues. Tom Wait’s Temptation is performed in a jazzy Latin style rhythm with tastefully polished solos on guitar and sax.

Standout tracks abound with stellar takes on Johnny Otis’ Aged and Mellow as Sonja sings, “I like my men like I like my whiskey, aged and mellow;" another Big Mama Thornton shouter I’m Feeling Alright, with its cooking sax solo; Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues; and At Last, often associated with Etta James. Most singers would have difficulty with the range required to sing these varied songs, not to mention the chutzpah to attempt songs by these legends. Sonja Lee has the stuff to pull it off with aplomb and gusto.

There are standards like Brooks Bowman’s 1935 tune East of the Sun and West of the Moon covered by artists from Sarah Vaughan to Diana Krall, Fitzgerald, Bird, Sinatra, Bennett, Armstrong, Getz and Holiday just to name a few; Cole Porter’s Get Out of Town sung by both Ella and Peggy Lee and the title track Telling it Like It Is first recorded by Aaron Neville in 1966.

If pressed to pick a favorite I would go with Pablo Ruiz’ mambo, Sway, a hit for Dean Martin in 1954 and Rosemary Clooney in 1959, but there just isn’t anything that is less than supreme on Telling It Like It Is. The Sonja Lee Band is a well-conceived and compelling mix of jazz and blues, the vocals are a paragon of excellence and the music top notch. Telling It Like It Is is a fantastic album and I give it my highest recommendation.

– Malcolm Kennedy

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