After a wait of more than a decade since her last release, Melissa Manchester’s 20th album, You Gotta Love the Life, is a welcome masterpiece.
At the suggestion of her students at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, where she is adjunct professor teaching the Art of Conversational Singing, Melissa crowd-funded this independent project and co-produced it along with jazz guitarist Terry Wollman.
You Gotta Love the Life is the result; and it’s a breathtaking spectacular for this highly lauded Grammy-winning singer-songwriter.
“This album is my testimony of what I know to be true. Not anybody else’s version of telling me what a good idea it would be, but my own hard won sense of who I am and what I have been through and what I have learned,” Melissa explains.
And boy, are we, the listeners, ever fortunate to be on the receiving end of her efforts.
With Lee Thornburg’s blistering arrangement of horns kicking off and driving the title song “You Gotta Love the Life,” (pulsating horns that speak of the “New York city skyline, where I was raised, and George Gershwin and Tower of Power, in a big heap,” Melissa recalls) the album gets off to a kinetically thrilling start, as the songstress sings of the everyday grit and joy of this life she has come to know over these 40 years — and the result is pure, unadulterated, joyful jazzy-pop that crackles with every note.
This is followed by the smoldering, gut-bucket first single “Feelin’ for You,” which Melissa co-wrote with Sara Niemetz, following her being propositioned by a drunk in a juke joint. It features the guitar work of contemporary blues icon and co-producer Keb’ Mo’.
Melissa hasn’t sounded this good and, well, just naturally plain sexy, in years on record — and it is thrilling to hear her have such a good time with an infectious beat and hook that stays with the listener, and which demands repeated listenings.
On “Be My Baby,” Melissa takes on the Ronettes’ 50-year-old classic by Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector and Jeff Barry, slowing down the tempo to a dreamily haunting pace that highlights the tenderness and beauty of the tune. Simply a stunning performance.
“Big Night” pairs Melissa once again with the very esteemed Al Jarreau — “the world’s largest elf,” according to Melissa.
Although they had recorded together once before — “The Music of Goodbye” from “Out of Africa (an incredible tune which, sadly, has seemingly gotten lost and is currently unavailable) this jazz duo was born when legendary percussionist extraordinaire Lenny Castro, who had agreed to play on Melissa’s album, called from a recording session with Jarreau, who asked to be part of Melissa’s new record.
The result is again pure magic, with this catchy duet giving Manchester and Jarreau the chance to interplay with great abandon, and create another smooth standard.
On “Other End of the Phone,” Melissa collaborates with the late, great Hal David, in what turned out to be his last written lyric.
Melissa teams up with the inimitable Dionne Warwick, her idol since she was 15-years-old. Their voices blend effortlessly and excitingly, around the lyrics of Hal David’s story of enduring friendship, along with the masterful, hypnotic piano of the late Joe Sample in one of his final performances. The result is a standout track, featuring three outstanding musicians.
Melissa was inspired to write and perform “You Are My Heart” as a wedding gift for two friends after the Supreme Court struck down the federal statute forbidding gays from marriage. Another stellar moment.
Besides being arguably one of the premier tune-smiths of her era, we cannot forget that Melissa also is a killer vocalist.
Having long established her penchant for songs from the great American songbook, her first single on Bell Records was the Jule Styne classic “Never Never Land,” and she did a remarkable cover of Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started With You” as a duet with the late John “Cooker” LoPresti on her second Bell album “Bright Eyes.”
Here on “Let’s Face the Music and Dance/From This Moment On,” Melissa pays homage to the genius of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter in a samba-inspired take on two classic examples of the gold standard of the American popular song. Her riveting, joyful performance reminds us of the timeless craftsmanship of these two iconic songwriters.
On “Claudia,” a tender love song written by Melissa’s brother-in-law, Steven Cagan, is about the artist’s beautiful sister, Claudia. Dave Koz contributes an intoxicating saxophone solo, which is certain to be a staple on jazz stations for years to come.
A long-time admirer of Stevie Wonder, Melissa with Carole Bayer Sager wrote an ode to him called “Stevie’s Wonder,” which appeared on her 1975 album “Melissa,” along with a driving cover of his song “Love Havin’ You Around.”
Then in 1978, Melissa covered Stevie’s song “Bad Weather” on her “Don’t Cry Out Loud” album, but the two had never worked together before on record.
Until now, that is. “Your Love is Where I Live” reunites Melissa with Tom Snow, the co-writer of her 1982 Grammy-winning single “You Should Hear How She Talks About You”, and features a texturized harmonica performance by the master, Stevie Wonder, that is warm, inviting and iconic.
“No There There” was co-written by Melissa and actor-writer-director and former touring partner Paul Reiser. This unique, multi-layered song is about recharging the energy that denial can drain out of life until one lets go of delusion, faces the truth and begins to reclaim one’s journey. A superb song with many levels.
Reprising an early and often repeated career theme of self-affirmation and self-esteem on “The Other One,” Melissa delivers a haunting song that stays with the listener.
Melissa’s rendition of “I Know Who I Am” is the highpoint of this song set.
Co-written with Joanna Cotten and Greg Barnhill and originally sung by Leona Lewis in Tyler Perry’s 2010 movie For Colored Girls, Melissa had previously recorded a live, solo version of this empowering tune.
This time, she starts off with a simple gospel piano, adding instrumentation as the song builds, and includes a chorus of singers from the music program at Citrus College, where Melissa is guest artist in residence, and where she recorded You Gotta Love the Life.
Melissa sings her face off. And it is thrilling and chill-producing.
An added bonus is an a cappella arrangement of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful” from The King & I. This introspective, romantic ballad is performed as a prayer and is truly a gem.
You Gotta Love the Life is an unforgettable musical tapestry, both classic and modern, performed by a musical master at the peak of her long and varied career — and one of strongest entries in the field in quite sometime.
Sweet Melissa…musical angel of our lifetime. Melissa Manchester is back with a vengeance.
Here’s Melissa on Tavis Smiley chatting about the journey that was the making of the album and her life: