Bettye LaVette’s trajectory over the past 20 years has been nothing short of remarkable, coming back from a near-forgotten obscurity — classic music industry mismanagement and career misfortunes — to become one of the preeminent musical voices of modern Soul and RnB. With her new album being released on the Verve Records label, her next logical step would be to tackle Jazz stylings. And Bettye being Bettye, she isn’t just putting out an album of random tracks; it had to have a greater purpose.
Accordingly, Blackbirds is “conceived as a dialogue with some of the great African American female singers of the 1950s,” according to press materials. It’s all wrapped up in the distinctive voice and perspective of Bettye LaVette.
On this album, songs linked to Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Della Reese, Ruth Brown, and others are reinterpreted as only she can.
For example, the press materials for the album explain her personalized interpretation of Paul McCartney’s song (from 1968’s The White Album): “When she intones on “Blackbird,” in her tough, distinctive voice, ‘All my life I have waited for this moment to arrive…to be free,’ we understand that she refers not only to the moment’s arrival but to her own emergence, her personal freedom.”
So what can I say about this new album from Bettye LaVette? Blackbirds is beautiful, poignant, powerful and produced perfectly for the music (by Steve Jordan, who also helmed her prior Grammy nominated album, Things Have Changed — click here for my review of that album).
Some of my favorites thus far include the completely reinvented title track (don’t expect it to sound Beatle-like!). Bettye’s take on Billie Holiday’s influential civil rights protest song “Strange Fruit” is appropriately somber yet offers a soulful rhythm bed that resonates and might just help the song get heard and appreciated by a new generation of listeners.
You can hear Blackbirds streaming in 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity via Qobuz Hi Res Audio (click here) and on Tidal in MQA format (click here). Both versions sound surprisingly round and warm which is only appropriate given this very intimate music.
I may sound like a broken record but if you haven’t listened to Bettye LaVette at all you owe it to yourself to explore her music, especially the recordings she’s made in the 21st Century as part of her amazing career renaissance.
Bettye LaVette is a national treasure.