by Ian Mann
December 20, 2022
An intriguing album that mixes poetry with music and which covers a wide range of human emotions.
“Home Is Where The Art Is”
(33 Jazz Records)
Esther Bennett – vocals, Terence Collie – piano, Rhodes, synth, percussion, Didier Messidoro – composer, Duncan Lamont Jr. - flute
Knowing that I prefer to work from physical copies rather than downloads vocalist Esther Bennett has been kind enough to burn me a CD copy of her new album “Home Is Where The Art Is”, so my thanks go to her for that.
The album began as a spoken word project exploring Bennett’s Birmingham roots and was originally intended to to be issued as an EP. Bennett, now based in London, then decided to extend the project to full album length by including a number of songs, many of them well known jazz standards.
Her main collaborators on the project are pianist Terence Collie and the French born composer Didier Messidoro who wrote the music that accompanies the spoken word sections. Messidoro has previously written for film, television and theatre and also leads his own band, performing a mix of pop and jazz covers, film themes and original compositions.
Collie leads his own small groups and is also a prolific sideman. He also undertakes important work as a promoter, co-heading the highly active Mood Indigo Events organisation with vocalist Janet McCunn. Something of a polymath Collie also works as an audio/visual producer.
As for Bennett herself she is a respected figure on the London jazz scene who released her début album “Just in Time” as long ago as 2005. She works regularly with Collie, with whom she has established a fruitful songwriting partnership. The duo released the lockdown inspired EP “Safe Places” in 2020.
She also works with saxophonist Hannah Horton in the project “Two Women of Jazz”. Live shows see the pair backed backed by a piano / bass / drums trio.
Bennett has a particular affinity for the songs of the late Duncan Lamont Sr. and collaborated with fellow vocalists Sarah Moule and Daniela Clynes on the EP “The Duncan Lamont Songbook”, which was also released in 2020. Recorded before the death of Lamont Sr. in 2019 the recording features his saxophone playing and also that of his son Duncan Lamont Jr., with whom Bennett is continuing the project. Lamont Jr. guests on two tracks on “Home Is Where The Art Is”, this time specialising on flute.
The album commences with “My Birmingham”, which features Bennett intoning her words in an exaggerated Brummie accent above a musical backdrop composed by Messidoro. Bennett was born in South Birmingham, in the hinterland between Balsall Heath and Moseley and for any listener who knows Birmingham her evocative words, which namecheck many city locations and landmarks, will conjure up their own mental images of ‘Brum’. The city’s multi-cultural heritage and the musical diversity that stems from that is also invoked, with Messidoro’s inventive soundtrack complementing and mirroring Bennett’s verbiage, her words laced with acerbic wit and sardonic humour, but always with an underlying love and affection for the city of her birth.
In her notes for the album she explains;
I became fascinated by the musical history of Birmingham and of The Bullring Shopping Centre built in the 1960s (now demolished and replaced), the architecture of the 1970s and the grimness of the 1980s. I visited over the two years of lockdown during the periods of restricted opening, exploring and revisiting home, familiar places and my past. What particularly interested me is how the sounds of the factories, the metal works, the steam hammers, the market traders and music of the immigrant workers informed a sound that is intrinsically the ‘Sound of Birmingham’.”
An entertaining account of Bennett’s youth in Birmingham can be found on her website here;
Bennett, Collie and Messidoro also collaborated on a video of “My Birmingham” which brings the images invoked by the words to life. It’s well worth a look and can be found here;
Bennett says of the video collaboration;
“The spoken word track and this subsequent video describe the Birmingham I grew up in through the 1970s and up until the turn of the century, just before the Bullring Shopping Centre, built in the 1960s, was torn down. It is a labour of love, developed over two years of visiting, revisiting and research and is an homage to my hometown and its musical, industrial, multicultural and working-class history. When Terry suggested that we do a video of the spoken word piece “My Birmingham”, I was thrilled because the photos I had taken and research I had done of the Birmingham I grew up in, now meant something and could be put to use. We collaborated creatively on the making of this video, with Terry taking complete control of the technical side of things and I am massively proud of it!”.
And rightly so.
The first sung performance is “Lush Life Medley” an ingenious melding together of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Amy Winehouse’s “Love Is A Losing Game”. Accompanied by Collie on piano and synth Bennett sings with a great sense of emotional involvement as Collie provides sensitive and spacious accompaniment, primarily on piano but augmented by judicious splashes of synth colouration. It’s a highly effective performance that weaves the two songs seamlessly together. In her album notes Bennett explains the inspiration behind the segue thus;
“In this piece, I wanted to combine two songs of pure genius. Both were written by artists that, though young at the time of writing, had mined a depth of emotion in these songs that were
beyond their years and so ached with a feeling and poignancy that one’s heart is dug from its very soul. I think that Billy Strayhorn would have appreciated “Love is A Losing Game” and this medley greatly, and that Amy would have felt honoured to have been in such great company”.
Written by John Haeny & Richard Torrance Bennett’s version of “Rio de Janeiro Blue” is inspired by Randy Crawford’s rendition of the song on her “Secret Combination” album, one of the cornerstones of Bennett’s youth. This arrangement features Collie on keyboards and percussion and Lamont Jr. on flute. Bennett now feels that she can finally do the song justice and sings it with a sultry sensuality. She is full of praise for her accompanists with Lamont soloing on flute, followed by Collie on Rhodes electric piano, who also produces the album.
Several of the spoken word pieces feature poetry written by Esther’s late mother, Dorothy M. Bennett. The poems that are included on the album were passed to Esther after her mother had died.
“I guess they thought that, being the only member of the family who chose to follow a creative path,
I should own them”, Esther explains.
“Suppose” was written for Esther’s late father and she chose a composition by Messidoro to illustrate the words.
“I’ve chosen a composition by Didier that really complements the sentiment and feel of this short piece and that allows me to play with the meaning and sound of its words.”
Once again the blend of words and music is highly effective, with Bennett’s performance extending beyond mere recitation to encompass genuine singing and also the use of extended vocal techniques.
The brief but striking “Mother’s Yorkshire” also features the words of Dorothy Bennett, who recalls the Yorkshire of her own childhood. Again the poetry is complemented by the musical sounds of a Messidoro composition. Dorothy’s words evoke the wildness and beauty of the Yorkshire moors and the vividness of her imagery has something of the power and magic of Ted Hughes about it.
“The Blissful Fool” is that most jazz like of creations, a contrafact with Esther Bennett’s melody and words underpinned by the harmonic chord sequence of that most famous of jazz standards, “All of Me”, written by Gerard Marks and Seymour Simons. Performed by Bennett with Collie on piano the song retains the feel of a jazz standard, but with 21st century lockdown inspired lyrics, plus a scat vocal episode.
“It was intentional to make the lyrics quirky and tricky whilst using as a base a very traditional jazz standard” explains Bennett, “I’m a great admirer of the American jazz singer Cécile
McLorin Salvant and this was a conscious effort to emulate her approach to a lyric and her style”.
The final spoken word piece is the poignant “The Maintenance Fitter”, a poem written by Esther Bennett in honour of her late father. Her own description of the piece probably summarises it best;
“This is a piece I wrote for my father in his last week of palliative care. I was with him during this period (along with my siblings) and up until his death. Apart from the roller coaster of emotions and poignancy of the situation which was enveloped in a deep and overwhelming sense of love and respect, I was struck by the awareness of how the human body is a working machine and that once one major organ (or “component”) breaks down, then the rest follow.
For most of his working life, my father had been a maintenance fitter at Wilmott-Breeden Ltd, a motor car accessories engineers factory in Tyseley, Birmingham. It seemed fitting to liken his last and final journey to that of an engine or machine breaking down, component by component and one that he could no longer fix”.
Once again Messidoro’s arrangement, sparse and evocative, represents the perfect soundtrack to the words.
Following the harrowing sadness of “The Maintenance Fitter” Bennett ends the album on a happy note with a joyous performance of her one of her favourite standards. “You Go To My Head” (music by J. Fred Coots, lyrics by Haven Gillespie) has long been a staple of her live sets and she often ends her shows with this song. This Latin style arrangement was inspired by Mark Murphy’s recorded version and features Collie on Rhodes and percussion and Lamont on flute, both of whom feature as instrumental soloists. Bennett sees this track as a celebration of music and dance, friends and family, and of life itself.
“Home Is Where The Art Is” is an intriguing album that mixes poetry with music and which covers a wide range of human emotions. It will have a particular resonance for those who know the city of Birmingham but there is plenty here for all potential listeners to enjoy. Both Bennett and her mother Dorothy prove to be skilled wordsmiths and their poetry is highly evocative, with their lines given an additional emotional heft by Messidoro’s musical accompaniment. Meanwhile Bennett’s distinctive vocals allow her to put her own stamp on a carefully chosen selection of songs and she receives excellent musical support from Collie and Lamont Jr., with Collie playing a particularly significant role in the success of the project overall.
I’m usually a little wary of albums that mix spoken word with music as the impact of narrated pieces can soon fade after repeated listening. That said the evocative nature of the poetry here stands up well and this is a thoughtful work that transcends the limits of the usual ‘jazz standards’ or ‘jazz and poetry’ album.
One also suspects that a rendition of the album as a whole would be highly effective in a live performance situation, particularly if the “My Birmingham” video could be incorporated into the proceedings. I can just imagine Bennett narrating the piece backed by Sid Peacock’s Surge Orchestra with the video projected behind them.
Despite the fact that we have regularly exchanged email correspondence Esther and I have never met in person. However I’m looking forward to rectifying this in the New Year when she visits Kidderminster Jazz Club, not so far from Birmingham, on March 9th 2023.
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