Saxophonist/vocalist Evelyn Rubio gathers a star-studded cast for Crossing Borders, with some songs delivered in English, some in Spanish. The album is produced by Grammy-winner and bassist Larry Fulcher and features guests from the Phantom Blues Band, Spirit, some of the best session players in Austin, all with sterling resumes, and Josh Sklair who held Etta James’ guitar chair for years. However, the project may have been overly ambitious, resulting in uneven results, though Rubio has several shining moments. In her own words, “Blues, Rock, Jazz, and a little Country weave love and heartbreak stories…” This results in sessions in L.A., Houston, and Austin across four studios, with Fulcher being the only (mostly) constant backing musician, even though he was not present on two of the 15 tracks. It’s the same issue that often plagues tribute albums: trying to do too much with too wide a cast. Nonetheless, Rubio is clearly talented both on her horn and as a powerful vocalist who can’t help but shine with this stellar backing
She does space out the different contingents with three from Austin, four from L.A. including the Spanish bonus tracks and one acoustic track, backed by guitarist the Mighty Orq and harmonicist “Sonny Boy Terry.” The Austin group includes sizzling guitarist Dave Grissom (Joe Ely, Storyville), legendary keyboardist Red Young, Zach Person on second guitar and Kirk Covington on drums for the opener “One Last Time,”(from the ‘70s band Rhinoceros) “When You Say You’re Sorry,” and “What a Way to Go.” These are the blues rockers, and, while they are solid, not the best of what she offers.
The title track (both versions) and “He Did Me Wrong But He Did It Right” (both versions) were laid sown in L.A. with Al Staehely (guitar) and Mark Andes (bass) from the band Spirit with Brandon Jackson on drums, Barry Seelen on keys and Kenny Cordway on guitar, who unfortunately passed short after the recording. The ballad material seems to suit Rubio best as well as the tunes where she plays sax which is only about half of them. “Crossing Borders” is the only time she plays tenor, choosing alto for the others. It is clearly a standout track and she struts her sultry self on the up-tempo “He Did me Wrong But He Did It Right” also.
The Mexico City-born Rubio was a star in her home country before locating to Houston where she eventually got a saxophone chair the Calvin Owens Orchestra (formerly B.B. King’s backing band), through Al Staehely’s invitation. After meeting another King cohort, James Bolden, Rubio recorded her first album as a leader, Hombres, also done in English and Spanish.
Among the highlights for those with the Phantom Blues Band (Braunagel, Finnigan, Schell, Fulcher) are “Port Isabel,” her best and most soulful sax spot on the disc, and the simmering, smoldering “I Don’t Understand” which is goose-bump-inducing and a showcase for her expansive vocal range. She closes the English portion of the disc with the Latin music standard, “Besame Mucho,” in acoustic Delta blues style which is another winner.
Evelyn Rubio has the goods and delivers several bright moments. She’s just overly ambitious here, and will hopefully rein it in with more focus next time out.