On the Record: Let Them Talk by Hugh Laurie

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September 29, 2011

10:32 PM

In the TV sensation “House,” star Hugh Laurie pauses from time to time to sit at the piano. He seems to be both a medical genius and a connoisseur of jazz. While his background in medicine is questionable, Laurie’s first album, “Let Them Talk,” puts all doubts to rest.

His musical talent is no act. Throughout the album, Laurie provides vocals, as well as piano, guitar and percussion. A pianist since age six, Hugh Laurie admits to a lifelong fascination with the blues.

“I love this music, as authentically as I know how, and I want you to love it too,” wrote Laurie in the album notes.

The album opens with “St. James Infirmary,” famously recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1928. Jazz chords pound out of the piano. Cymbals crash in the background. Then, Laurie sings.

Laurie confesses that the blues — and its tremendous culture — are not his own.

“Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south,” Laurie wrote.

But from his rich, soulful singing, you would think Laurie came from Louisiana. Laurie says he was heavily influenced by blues vocalists Ray Charles and Bessie Smith.

Laurie reaches back into the strong tradition of African American music. The seventh track on the album,
“Swanee River,” was written in 1851. It has since been adopted as the official state song of Florida.

In this song, Laurie’s joy for music shines through the melody.

He adopts a quick, stride-piano style, laughing over the notes. A violin scratches away in the background.
The song comes across as unpolished, heartfelt and fun, perhaps true to the New Orleans performer style.

Stepping away from the blues, Laurie also attempts to recreate the African American spiritual. Slaves of the early 1800s are believed to have written “Battle of Jericho,” the fifth track of the album. Laurie brings emotion to the song that is neither superficial nor forced.

The song may be considered bare bones, relying solely on vocals, percussion and violin, but this writer argues that it stays true to the tradition of spirituals. An ornamented spiritual is not a spiritual.

The album closes with the title track, “Let Them Talk.” Laurie pours out sorrowful chords on the piano in an Oscar Peterson style. He cries out over the piano, “I’m gonna keep on, keep on loving you, till the day that I die.”

The closing track comes across as an ode to the blues, a proclamation of love between the musician and his music. Laurie did not compose any of the songs on this album. Rather, he pays tribute to the songs that have touched him. His deep adoration for the music comes across on every track.

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