Bettye LaVette has many talents. During her 50-plus year career, she’s been celebrated as a soul, rock, R&B, Americana, funk, gospel, and country music singer, as a songwriter and an interpreter of other people’s work, and recently was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Her latest album, Blackbirds, on the Verve label, is mostly a jazz record. As the album title suggests, LaVette offers her versions of songs previously recorded by black female singers from the past who worked in jazz and pop idioms such as Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday.
LaVette has a distinctive whiskey-soaked voice. She brings her personal touch to the material and makes it her own. That can be to her advantage on such songs as Ruth Brown’s “Book of Lies”. LaVette begins with an acapella intro that showcases the ache in her throat and her heart. As she laments her lost love, LaVette will change intonations. Some lines will be whispered, others simply spoken, and others will just convey pain. “Every broken promise broke my heart,” sings in a voice that beautifully captures the song’s essence. The brushing of the snare drums, the picked guitar lines, and the thumping bass create a club-like atmosphere circa 1960 (around the time Brown’s originally released). One can almost smell the aroma of cigars and spilled cocktails.
Things get more seductive on LaVette’s take on Lil Green’s “Romance in the Dark”. The song’s tempo purposely evokes the narrator’s excited heartbeat. While Green was purposely playful, LaVette offers a more mature take. When she sings, “I get such a thrill when he puts his fingertips on my lips,” you know she’s serious about her pleasure. The same is true for her rendition of Dinah Washington’s “Drinking Again”. When Washington sang about being a fool, she knew she was being foolish. She drank because she enjoyed it as well a needed it to kill the pain at the end of an affair. LaVette sounds like a woman devastated by being dumped. She drinks because she’s so deeply heartbroken. All that is missing is the splash of tears.
Covering Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” comes off as a bit of a misstep. The anti-lynching anthem may have resonance in today’s world (unfortunately), but LaVette doesn’t seem to know what to do with the explicitly crude lyrics about burning flesh and such. The song comes off as more of a museum piece than a fresh approach to the topic.
The album’s first single is LaVette’s take on Nina Simone’s “I Hold No Grudge”. The two women’s voices share a similarity of timbre, which makes selecting this song a smart choice. Simone has an almost regal air as she commemorates the end of a relationship. LaVette articulates her emotional report with more feeling. When she sings, “Deep inside my I’ve got no regrets,” you know she really does as compared with Simone’s more stately pronouncements.
The other covers of Sharon Robinson, Della Reese, and Nancy Wilson also have much to offer. The last cut is an acoustic version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”. LaVette slows things done and personalizes the lyrics (i.e., “I took my broken wings and taught my own self how to fly”). She lets the words linger in the air and moans to express her struggles. It’s lovely and fits right in with the record’s larger theme of honoring black women.