Julie Driscoll left Trinity, the band she fronted and directed with Brit soul-jazz icon Brian Auger, in 1969. She recorded a pair of solo albums, married Keith Tippett, a brilliant jazz improviser and bandleader, and recorded with Ovary Lodge, a free-form vocal ensemble, in 1977. In 1978 she and Auger reunited for Encore, a one-off studio offering that revealed the hole she'd left in the progressive pop scene of the late '60s. Her voice was in even better shape nearly a decade later: fuller, stronger, more throaty, without giving up a bit of her range. Auger, meanwhile, had remained very active with his groundbreaking soul-jazz-funk ensemble the Oblivion Express. While some complain that these sides don't have the Swinging London imprint on them, that would be because they stayed back there in the musty, dusty pop history bin. Listening to Encore in the 21st century is nearly a revelation. Auger, for his part as the band's musical director on his trademark B-3, acoustic piano, and a slew of electronic keyboards, is a strictly no-BS performer. He's as straight-ahead as they get, and Julie Tippetts understands that the root of the song is in its intention. Together, they make a nearly flawless pair on these nine cuts. Nowhere is this clearer than on the two tracks previously defined by other vocalists. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," while oft-covered, had never come close to Eric Burdon & the Animals' version. Tippetts, however, plasters the song with bluesy feeling and a smoldering, nearly angry plea. Then there's Jack Bruce's "Rope Ladder to the Moon." Tippetts implicitly understands the jazz feel of the tune as Bruce wrote it. The funky backdrop bassline by David McDaniels doesn't even muddy it up. Auger's Rhodes piano and B-3 and George Doering's gorgeous acoustic guitar playing are certainly the pegs the tune turns on, but it's Tippetts who delivers the authority and dark secret in this song about love's cruelty.
And, of course, there's Pops Staples' "Freedom Highway," in which the vocalist here gives Mavis Staples a run for her money in offering the sense of determination and joy in the gospel and blues shout she got to use so rarely in her solo career. But there's more than this, too: Tippetts and Auger deliver the album's two bookends written by Al Jarreau, "Spirit" and "Lock All the Gates," as harder, funkier jazz numbers while never losing the airiness at their core. On the former, Tippetts is prodded and edged to the ledge by Auger and McDaniels, and the tune nearly lifts off. The only weak spot on this whole set is the Auger vocal on Milton Nascimento's "Nothing Will Be as It Was." It's not that the tune wouldn't have been a standout on an Oblivion Express record, but on this one it's pale in comparison to the solid groove consciousness and expression in Tippetts' Earth angel voice. Auger wrote a couple of winners here as well in both "Git Up" and "Freedom Pilot," and they stand up with the canonical tracks just fine. The former is as jazzy funk tune with some knotty twists and turns that Tippetts pulls off without a seam, and the latter is a soul groover. Finally, it should be mentioned that "No Time to Live," the Steve Winwood-Jim Capaldi tune, is given all the elegance of the original, but Tippetts adds her own sense of smoke and fire to its lyric, turning it inside out as a soul tune. The lead work of Doering as it punches through Auger's fat acoustic piano makes this little ballad soar. Ultimately, this is as necessary as any of the previous Auger/Driscoll (nee Tippetts) collaborations, and aurally reveals that for the two of them, time may move on, but their collaborative spirit is nearly effortless in its balance, dignity, feeling, and poise.