She’s a one off. She’s celebrating 50 years in the music business as a performer and she’s back. But you’ll have to wait to 1 October for Thankful N’ Thoughtful by the great Detroit singer Bettye LaVette, She’s also written an autobiography with David Ritz, the writer who has produced such compelling if controversially raw books on Marvin Gaye and Jimmy Scott.
Like Scott, Bettye LaVette has had more than her fair share of ups and downs over the years and was a star and then wasn’t, then kind of became one again for a variety of reasons which the book goes into gripping detail about. I didn’t care much for her last album Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook which for me laboured the point a bit, but the new record is different.
Coming well ahead of a Jazz Cafe date in London on 11 December as part of a European tour to support the release Thankful was produced by Craig Street, the producer who turned Cassandra Wilson’s career right round in the 1990s when he worked with the Mississipian on the superb Blue Light Til Dawn on which Wilson moved beyond her comfort zone for the first time.
LaVette because of the nature of the kind of R&B she thrives on (roughly Tina Turner land) maybe didn’t have to make such a leap with Street, and as she dips in and out of different styles gives each of them her own emotively compelling life force. The tracks are a mix bag of tunes and on early listens I have been hitting replay on Dylan’s ‘Everything is Broken’ and the left field folk singer Patty Griffin’s song ‘Time Will Do The Talking’ which is just stunning. But there are plenty of other goodies including material by the Black Keys, Tom Waits and Neil Young, and LaVette manages even to breathe new life into Gnarls Barkley’s done-to-death ‘Crazy’, in itself a neat trick. LaVette’s band on the record is Chris Bruce, guitar; Jonathan Wilson guitar, banjo; Glenn Patscha, piano, keys; Jennifer Condos, bass; JJ Johnson, drums, percussion; Steven Bernstein of Sex Mob on ‘Yesterday Is Here’; and Douglas Wieselman, reeds on the same track.
Just ahead of the album release LaVette’s autobiography, A Woman Like Me is published on 27 September.
Bettye LaVette pictured top. Photo: Marina Chavez
There’s been a recent debate on a few websites spurred on in part by Ethan Iverson’s comments on the value or otherwise of high profile contests and prizes with comments flying across the Internet for and against. I suppose the same will happen here in the UK once this year’s MOBO and Mercury award nominations are announced over the next few weeks. In some ways it’s more about the nominations, and the furore, if there is any, dies down when the winners are announced.
This year the Mercury announcement has been delayed partly because of the Olympics taking over, so nominations which are usually held in July are happening this month instead, with the winner announced in November.
Last year one of the bands that was hotly tipped to be Mercury annointed, the very fine Kairos 4tet, got nada but actually went on to win the MOBO for best jazz act, while the Mercury nom itself went to Gwilym Simcock for his airy but formidable Schloss Elmau solo piano album recorded, as you do, at a spa retreat in Bavaria.
Simcock this year has been touring with Anglo-American band The Impossible Gentlemen out of contention and with Lighthouse, definitely in with a chance, and if Lighthouse have been entered they’ll surely take up some of the judges’ chin scratching time as their own album (it’s Simcock with saxophonist Tim Garland and Asaf Sirkis) was one of the standout releases of the year for many. Portico Quartet, who were nominated for an earlier album changed tack this year to release a more electronica-oriented album, so don’t rule them out for the Mercury in this new guise, surely a prime candidate for a band that has changed dramatically from its jazz roots. Another outfit, which features former Jade Fox scenester David Okumu and Polar Bear’s Tom Herbert, The Invisible, has also moved well away from early influences and may get nominated but not in the “token jazz” spot, as they inhabit a trusted patch of indie-land.
While 2012 has seen few obvious jazz acts build such a consensus around them to make their appeal so blindingly obvious they’ll just stroll up for a Mercury or MOBO, other bands surely in consideration must be Roller Trio (if they’ve been entered like all of these mentioned I hasten to caution), Phronesis, if the rules allow them entry, Troyka, trioVD, Neil Cowley Trio for The Face of Mount Molehill, Get The Blessing for OCDC, Django Bates, Zara McFarlane, Josh Arcoleo, Partikel, World Service Project, Arun Ghosh, Beats and Pieces, a rare big band possible, Alexander Hawkins, Julian Joseph, Stuart McCallum, John Surman for Saltash Bells, and Trio Libero, if the rules allow the band on the tip sheet. Black Top (Pat Thomas, Steve Williamson and Orphy Robinson) have still to record so maybe they’re one to watch for next year as are Sons of Kemet. Dice Factory have made their presence felt with their self titled debut but that’s a late entrant, and Courtney Pine’s House of Legends while not released yet may have been entered if it met the Mercury and MOBO deadlines. Ivo Neame’s Yatra might be too late as well but if not it’s in with a shout. Both Ian Shaw and Claire Martin have released strong vocal records and Matthew Bourne’s Montauk Variations would be a great left field choice, and at its polar opposite young crooner Alexander Stewart made a good showing with his take on the Smiths on his debut album.
So it will be interesting to see who gets the nod. It could even be none of the above. In recent years it’s been pianists all the way with Simcock and Kit Downes while the MOBOs have moved away from the crossover smooth jazz of Yolanda Brown to post-bop last year. I’d like to see either Neil Cowley Trio, Get the Blessing, Matthew Bourne, or Troyka bask in the Mercury glow this year, they’d all be fine ambassadors for the music, and Zara McFarlane, Jazz Jamaica or Black Top pick up the MOBO, as the best jazz act category does not necessarily need a brand new album to guarantee inclusion.
Whoever gets it I hope they capture the wider media’s imagination so that the word can get out about the UK scene that bit more. Otherwise we’ll have to wait until the next set of awards to try to up the scene’s profile and they’re in January when Jazz FM launch their inaugural gongs.
In the running
Simcock, Garland, Sirkis Lighthouse ACT
Roller Trio Roller Trio F-IRE
Partikel Cohesion Whirlwind
Portico Quartet Portico Quartet Real World
The Invisible Rispah Ninja Tune
Get The Blessing OCDC Naim
Django Bates Confirmation Lost Marble
World Service Project Relentless Brooke
Arun Ghosh Primal Odyssey Camoci
Beats and Pieces Big Ideas Efpi
Alexander Hawkins Ensemble All There, Ever Out Babel
Julian Joseph Live at the Vortex in London ASC
Troyka Moxxy Edition
Claire Martin Too Much In Love To Care Linn
Ian Shaw A Ghost In Every Bar Splashpoint
Zara McFarlane Until Tomorrow Brownswood
Sheppard, Benita, Rochford Trio Libero ECM
Stuart McCallum Distilled Naim
Dice Factory Dice Factory Babel
Ivo Neame Yatra Edition
Matthew Bourne Montauk Variations Leaf
Alexander Stewart All Or Nothing At All Alexander Stewart Music
Neil Cowley Trio The Face of Mount Molehill Naim
Get the Blessing: will they bag an award? Pictured top, and Zara McFarlane, above
This time last year The Face of Mount Molehill was just a twinkle in the eye, in that vacuum between advance copy and release and no one really apart from the band and their nearest and dearest had actually heard the record.
Molehill, released at the start of 2012 in that funny old world when the London Olympics hadn’t actually taken place and the capital was even then still reeling from the previous summer’s riots, has since gone on to become the biggest selling new UK jazz release of the year so far with more than 8,000 copies sold and climbing. That’s pretty unlikely to be beaten by any other jazz release, even though it’s still only September.
But before the end of the year wheels around once more the trio is rehearsing ahead of an autumn tour in the States, and then back in Blighty with the Goldsmiths (Big) Strings on 17 November plays an unsual London Jazz Festival afternoon show at the Barbican, a “never-been-done-before project", says the venue, which involves the trio along with Molehill violinist/arranger Julian Ferraretto challenging a hand picked 30-piece ‘big strings’ orchestra to play by ear instead of from notation music from The Face of Mount Molehill plus new tunes specially written.
Last year at the London Jazz Festival, the complete programme of which for this year is announced next week but which features already such flagged-up luminaries as Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau and Kurt Elling in the festival’s biggest ever incarnation fittingly in its 20th anniversary year, the Neil Cowley Trio played a midnight gig at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, the album’s producer Dom Monks (who engineered on Coldplay’s Viva La Vida) even manning the sound desk.
That night it was a chance to hear the album in a relaxed setting as the NCT kicked right in after soundchecking in front of an audience made up of Facebook friends, musicians and gig-goers who had made their way over from other London Jazz Festival venues that night. They began with ‘Rooster Was A Witness’ and the hum of feedback still ringing in their ears, pianist Cowley also doubling on Nord keyboards; new recruit Aussie indie rocker Rex Horan (Mama’s Gun) on double bass; the trio’s long standing and original drummer Evan Jenkins; and the Mount Molehill Strings squeezed decorously in the rear of the compact bandstand of the Dean Street basement club demonstrating a certain amount of ingenuity in running through the material with Cowley in the tiny breaks between songs bantering with the audience, the desk, and the band. The band settled on the highly effective ‘Skies Are Rare’ and by ‘Fable’ started to rock. Cowley got into the zone headbanging away on the Steinway, with minimalist lines, fast breakout improvising and resolved melodic flourishes, while on the title track of the album the strings came into their own.
The classical players who will come head to head with the Neil Cowley Trio at the Barbican at this year’s London Jazz Festival may not know quite what’s hit them. One thing’s for sure with this trio, as the record has also shown and as the public continues to snap it up, jazz has never quite sounded the same before.
Neil Cowley Trio top and the cover of The Face of Mount Molehill. US dates are: Iridium, New York (11 October); Wexner Center, Columbus, Ohio (13 Oct); Franklin Theatre, Nashville (14 Oct); Yoshi’s, Oakland, California (15 Oct); and The Mint, Los Angeles (16 Oct).
Musicweek.com reports today of a new Jazz FM awards to be launched on the last day of January next year by digital radio station Jazz FM, sponsored by US audio firm Klipsch. According to the story: “The annual accolades will recognise and commend those who have made exceptional contributions to the jazz industry during the preceding twelve months," and both the new generation and jazz legends will be recognised. Jazz FM has worked with Klipsch already and the firm founded in Arkansas in the 1940s has already sponsored the station’s retro jazz dance Peppermint Candy show.
The awards will complement the existing Parliamentary Jazz Awards, the only significant UK jazz awards at the moment, held each year in May, but will be seen as a broader media event with some similarities to the BBC Jazz Awards that the corporation ran successfully for a number of years in the noughties until funding cuts ushered in their demise along with the sister world music awards event.
2013 will also see Jazz FM mount the Love Supreme outdoor jazz festival near Brighton to add to its burgeoning live sector that this year has seen the station extend its Funky Sensation club night from its Ronnie Scott’s base, and promote major concert hall gigs by such stars as Marcus Miller and Dionne Warwick.
Pictured above: New Bluetooth On-Ear headphones awards sponsor Klipsch launches this month; and the Jazz FM logo.