TESS HENLEY: High Heels & Sneakers (www.tesshenley.com)

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Tess Henley first came to our attention back in 2008 with the easy-on-the-ear album, ‘Easy To Love’. Then a couple of years back the Seattle singer-songwriter hit us with an appealing EP from which the laid back ‘Boy In The Window’ caught the attention of discerning musos. Amongst them was sometime Roots member Dice Raw (Karl Jenkins) who encouraged Tess to move up a gear or two by recording any new work in a bigger, maybe “better”, certainly more sympathetic environment. He suggested Philadelphia –a major musical centre known for its melodic soul ambience and there Tess hooked up with another Roots’ associate, Khari Matten – who’s CV includes work with Jill Scott. Between them they’ve come up with this, Tess’ brand new long player – and the move has certainly worked. ‘High Heels & Sneakers’ retains all the melodic, optimistic, enthusiastic elements of Tess’ earlier work but it possesses a sophistication and polish that gives the 14 tracker a huge attraction.

The first few plays indicate that the song ‘Daydreaming’ is the standout. It’s not the Aretha song… it’s a Henley original (like everything on the album), but it’s every bit as mature and well crafted as the Queen Of Soul’s song and Tess sings her heart out on it. Tess’ voice has a real warmth and intimacy – heard to best effect on the set’s ballads – ‘You Are The One’, the more mournful ‘I’ll Do Anything’, the aching ‘Vultures’ and the slinky ‘Something To Say’. If you want something a little more up-tempo try the insistent chugger ‘Who Are You’ (just a hint of contemporary R&B here) or the catchy, shuffling ‘Gonna Fall In Love’. The brassy ‘Heartless Queen’ is different again. Bold and brassy, there’s a definite Caribbean flavour to it. ‘Part Of My Dance’ is quirky while ‘Above’ is loose and jazzy. Yes, there’s lots going on here, but the unity comes in the craftsmanship of the songs, the passion of the vocals and the overall musicality.

It would be easy to make a comparison with Alicia Keys. Tess’ approach, sound and style are very similar to the native New Yorker’s but you could also make allusions to Carole King, even the great Laura Nyro. Tess, I’m sure, would be flattered by such comparisons but her work does have the polish, honesty and the musicality (yes, that word again) of those three great singer/songwriters. Those three clearly love/loved making their music. Its obvious Tess does too.

(BB) 4/5