Fontella Bass, circa 1970
Fontella Bass, circa 1970 Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 2002, London-based nu-jazz collective the Cinematic Orchestra opened its second studio album on Ninja Tune (one of the two leading UK trip-hop labels of the trip-hop moment) Every Day with a wonderful experiment in soul called “All That You Give.” This post is about that tune, its featured singer, Fontella Bass, and also the Cinematic Orchestra’s sound, which is a blend of sampled and performed music. The fullness of the orchestra's sound fills the screen of a movie we have never seen. The samples are often from jazz records. In the case of “All That You Give” (arguably CO’s most important recording), the sample is from Alice Coltrane’s “Turiya.”

In one sense, “All That You Give” references a track on the soundtrack of 1970 French movie, Les Stance a Sophie, by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. That track is “Theme De Yoyo.” Cinematic Orchestra covered it on their 2003 soundtrack album for the Soviet-era silent movie Man With a Camera. The reason why Fontella Bass was tapped for “All That You Give” is that she's also on “Theme De Yoyo,” and also other tracks on Les Stance a Sophie—a soundtrack that made a big impact on Cinematic Orchestra’s vision and mode. Bass died a decade after the release of her last hit on Every Day.

In 1970, Fontella became the singer and pianist for the Art Ensemble of Chicago. She also became the wife of the band’s trumpeter, Lester Bowie. They lived in Paris during this period. Two of the four kids from their marriage (which did not survive the '70s) were born in the City of Lights.

Fontella Bass was born in Saint Louis in 1940, a singer from a family of gospel singers who enjoyed her first hit in 1964, a duet with soul singer Bobby McClure (he had moderate success in the 1960s and paid the bills as a prison guard in the 1970s and 1980s). The name of the tune: “Don't Mess With a Good Thing.”

Bass’ second and biggest hit happened in 1965. It is fair to register this work, "Rescue Me," as a major contribution to the tone of American civilization. Many people, however, think "Rescue Me" is one of Aretha Franklin's top tunes. But that is wrong. And the confusion is understandable. In 1992, Pizza Hut released a commercial based on “Rescue Me" that featured Franklin singing “deliver me” instead. Millions, maybe even billions, of people heard “Deliver Me.” But “Rescue Me” is 100 percent Fonetella Bass.

Though Fonetella had other hits, none reached the magnitude of “Rescue Me.” And after repeated confrontations and frustrations with the recording industry, she pretty much left pop music in her act of marriage to Lester Bowie, an avant garde jazz trumpeter. This musician was nowhere near the mainstream that made Bass famous. He was on the fringes of a then-dying art, jazz. Her marriage to Bowie needs to be seen as Bass' revolt. She and the trumpeter even left the US and moved to Paris, a European city Bowie saw as a better environment for serious artists. Their marriage (Bass’s revolt) however, ended in 1978 in the US. Soon after that break, Bass began a decade of financial difficulties that would end with what many would call a miracle. She also returned to her roots, gospel music.

The Cinematic Orchestra's “All That You Give,” which is dedicated to Lester Bowie, is not so much a soul tune, but the fragments of one. What I mean here is that, though it's entirely original, it's sung by Bass as if it were samples from another soul tune she recorded in the past, the 1960s, the peak of her fame.

Bass sings with great feeling: “You hear me raving… You see me crying... I’m grieving from my hat down to my shoes.” If you don’t know who Lester Bowie is, and his relationship with the singer, you have to ask, upon hearing these lines: Who is hearing her ravings? Who is seeing her cry? What has made her grieve so much? You will have no idea. She does not provide that information because this is not what the tune is about. She is not singing a soul song, but a song about the state, the condition, the mode of soul itself. She is singing about the “soul of a man.” It is, indeed, Bass philosophizing about her art, soul music. And philosophy is always the effort to capture the essence of something.

Now here is the interesting aspect of soul music that gets me every time. Many of the tunes say two things at once. One part is about the state of a romance, and the other, the state of a soul. So, you hear the suffering of a lover and also the spiritual or existential suffering (soul suffering). (For me, the words 'existential' and 'spiritual' are interchangeable.)

An example of this is Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead,” which forms the foundation (the key sample) for Mos Def’s "Ms Fat Booty."

"One Step Ahead" is about a man who causes his lover so much misery. She loves him too much. He doesn't love her enough. He can dump her at any moment. And if he dumps her, he can have the poor wretch back with the snap of his fingers. She knows this, and she can do nothing about it. She is damned. This damned aspect is the tragic state of the soul itself. It is too weak, too vulnerable. The surface of the song is about a woman who is unable to break from a bad boyfriend. The deeper (or the philosophy of the) song, however, is about the soul in a state of damnation.

The same is true for “Rescue Me.” The worldly (or obvious) side of the tune is about a lonely person longing for a lover; and the other, philosophical, side of it is about a doomed soul needing and pleading for something like divine intervention. The “rescue me” in the tune is a double crisis.

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Now, about that miracle that happened to Bass on New Year’s Day, 1990. She had just suffered a brutal decade, the 1980s, and was dead broke. Her telephone was shut off, her bills were piling up, her furnace needed to be repaired, a tree had fall on her house. Her bank account was close to empty. And then the miracle happened: she and her daughter heard “Rescue Me” on the radio, used in an American Express commercial. This corporation had not asked her for permission to use the the tune. She was a co-writer on the tune. She had not been paid. She hit contacted her agent, and the agent hit the phones hard, and eventually the matter was settled with a big check. Bass' financial situation improved and her career found some wind in its sails.

Now, many say, and did say: Isn’t it ironic that she was rescued by a tune called “Rescue Me.” I say no, it wasn’t ironic. It’s only ironic to you because you only heard the lover’s side of the record, and missed its existential (soul, spiritual, divine intervention) side.

The Cinematic Orchestra performs tonight Neptune Theatre.

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