By Michael P Coleman
Sade has been reincarnated, and she lives in the body and voice of the stunning Robin McKelle.
Yes, I know Sade’s still with us. But that sister releases an album only about once a decade. It’s rumored that she’s working on a new project as I type, but ff you can’t wait, McKelle is more than capable to fill in the gap!
McKelle’s riveting cover of Lee Dorsey’s “Yes We Can Can,” made famous by the legendary Pointer Sisters and composed by Allen Toussaint, is an inspirational and sonic wonder. It’s hard to cover a song I love as much as that and not leave me digging through the 70s and 80s mix tapes that are still in the bottom of my closet. In McKelle’s capable hands, “Yes We Can Can” morphs from simmering ballad to scatting showcase to gospel barn burner.
Yes, she can can, and yes she did did!
“I loved the original version, and of course The Pointer Sisters’ version,” McKelle told me during our EXCLUSIVE interview. “It always amazes me how relevant these songs still are. It’s a hopeful song in such a time when it seems we’re filled with such turmoil and hate and angst, and people are just in a funk right now. I wanted to try something special with it, something different. That was really the challenge: to take it out of that really super groovy funk thing and still keep it soulful, but do something unique with it.”
The rest of Melodic Canvas is equally impressive, from the lovely “Lyla” and “Simple Man,” the latter of which is a tribute to immigrants, to the inspirational “It Won’t End Up” and “Do You Believe.” The project is not only McKelle’s self-described return to jazz, but also a throwback to a time when albums were recorded live in the studio with the band. McKelle wrote almost every song on the album, and says its creation was cathartic.
“With this new album, I tried to address some of the issues we’re dealing with politically and socially,” McKelle said. “I tried to make an album that speaks towards making something better and keeping things positive.”
Vocally, McKelle’s instrument is lovely and languid, reminding me of the best of Dianne Reeves, with a little bit of Teena Marie tossed in for good measure. I asked her about her vocal and artistic inspirations.
“As a kid, I was drawn to soul music: Aretha, Stevie, Gladys Knight, Motown, then Whitney Houston…and the list goes on and on. My voice is a gift from God, I guess,” McKelle said.
That’s a really good guess!
McKelle’s touring Europe in support of the new Melodic Canvas, but this writer hopes she’ll return to northern California — she played Yoshi’s in Oakland years ago — and share her gift with us again.
Information on Robin McKelle, and physical copies of her new Melodic Canvas are available at robinmckelle.com and at Amazon. The album is available digitally on iTunes, Apple Music, and other digital and streaming outlets.