Sharon Jones lived to work. She was a performer, first and foremost, and so it comes as no surprise that she and her band the Dap-Kings spent the final months between her second cancer diagnosis and her untimely death last year working. They toured, they wrote and, to the great fortune of those who knew and loved both the woman and the music, they recorded.
The result is the recently released Soul of a Woman. A remarkable record, it’s both a natural evolution of the music she made with the Dap-Kings as well as a proper primer to the many textures, tones and stylistic ideas that attracted so many fans.
Originally envisioned as the grandest of Dap-Kings’ records, about half the songs bear big, lush and beautifully indulgent orchestral arrangements. Where her earlier work was often compared to soul legends such as James Brown and Otis Redding, these new songs saw her exploring, with remarkable nuance, sounds more reminiscent of Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke. The other half strips away all things ancillary, focusing just on what the Dap-Kings kept ready in their musical arsenal and carefully keeping the attention on Jones and her uncanny ability to communicate both joy and heartbreak in a single, simple, musical phrase.
If this record has a centerpiece, it must be the final track. Penned by Jones herself, it’s a relatively simple gospel tune, arranged primarily for guitar, organ and piano. As she sings an affirmation of faith and willingness to cede control to a higher power, a choir, the choir from Jones’s home church, causes the music to swell and expand, with great subtlety at first and then with real purpose. It’s not a song about facing death, but embracing life. It’s a song that ends with Jones either sobbing or laughing. I like to believe it’s a little of both – bitter and sweet – because I believe that’s the way she would choose to have her music and her life remembered.