Sathima Bea Benjamin is not a name that leaps to mind when considering jazz songbirds of the last several decades, but the South African singer is a very respected artist who has put together a nice career. That aside, the possibility of an unfulfilled musical destiny will always be part of her story.
That subject is addressed via a new album from Ekapa Records, A Morning In Paris, featuring the singer’s 1963 debut recordings, lost for over 30 years and finally issued in 1996. This new edition features updated art and album notes, and is also available for download. Additionally, it’s being tied in with current appearances by the still active singer.
She’s backed on the historic recordings by some talented musicians, including Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Abdullah Ibrahim — her husband, and also part of the legend attached to the event. It seems that the young Sathima, then called Beattie or Bea, got in touch with the Duke on behalf of her husband (who was then called Dollar Brand, to further complicate things).
Although she was painfully shy, she managed to interest Ellington in her husband’s music — but on the condition that she sing for him. He liked what he heard, and arranged studio sessions in Paris, most featuring Bea’s husband on piano but a few with Billy Strayhorn or the Duke himself taking over.
For whatever reason, and you could speculate all night about it, the recordings were lost for over three decades. Meanwhile, both Bea and her husband continued building their careers with some success (and various name changes) through the years.
But let’s talk about the music on this album. The young singer’s voice is perfectly suited to the music, mostly jazz standards, but there is nothing standard about her treatment of these classic pieces. Her sultry, smoky tone shows a maturity that’s startling, and her measured pacing with occasional surprises is unconventional but distinctive.
Ellington’s piano shows up on two of his own tunes, “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” and “Solitude,” which is probably the best track on an album filled with gorgeous music. It’s obvious that a rapport existed between the two performers, and Bea found the moment so special that she has never again performed the song with any other pianist.
The two contributions from Strayhorn include “Your Love Has Faded,” and in a little bit of a surprise, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” The latter was a surprise for Billy too since he had never played the song before, but after the young singer requested it he was able to get up to speed pretty quickly. The two mesh very nicely as Bea again exhibits a slow, almost leisurely pace that’s deceptively simple but enormously entertaining.
The balance of the tracks feature her husband at the keyboard, and he more than holds his own. Some of the best include an old favorite of mine, “I Could Write A Book,” again performed at a deliberate pace, but it’s not all about measured slowness with Bea. A couple of Gershwin tunes; “Soon,” and especially the delightful “The Man I Love,” bring on a livelier, more upbeat sound from the singer.
Classic jazz from a legendary singer accompanied by great musicians — what’s not to like? Highly recommended.
Sathima Bea Benjamin website.