Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sathima Bea Benjamin: A Morning in Paris

Ekapa Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08
Buy CD: A Morning in Paris

This recording, and its history, read like a fairy tale. 

It's one of those stories where a near-miracle occurs: The results of that miracle are lost, then found more than 30 years later and, finally, brought to full light after more time passes. 

Sathima Bea Benjamin is a South African vocalist who, although she gained fame singing songs from her own country, is almost an unknown in the jazz genre. In 1963, at the age of 23, she attended a Duke Ellington concert in Paris, France. She managed to catch Ellington's ear after the concert, raved about the ability of her pianist boyfriend (Abdullah Ibrahim), and talked Duke into visiting the Club Africana, where that trio was playing. 

Duke agreed to hear the ensemble, but also insisted that Benjamin sing for him. He was so impressed by both that he arranged for them to record albums for Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records. Ibrahim's album was released, but hers wasn't deemed "commercial" enough to sell ... and subsequently was "lost." 

The tapes for that session re-surfaced in 1996, when they were found by a writer doing a biography of Billy Strayhorn. 

So, what's so special about all of this? 

Well, three pianists backed up Benjamin's album: Ibrahim, Ellington and Strayhorn (one of Duke's arrangers at the time). The other musicians on that session included a bassist, drummer and Svend Asmussen, who played pizzicato violin (plucked, like a guitar, rather than bowed). Its effect, in conjunction with Benjamin's voice, is perfect for this recording. 

All 12 tunes are old "love song" standards that have been done hundreds of times, by as many artists, but you've never heard them performed like this. Benjamin's voice is velvet-smooth: clear as a bell and, as another reviewer has commented, with an "innocence" that just forces you to listen. 

Some of that is lost in her later, African-hued performances, but she was near perfection in this session. 

If you're yearning for the kind of music that meant so much when you were younger, this album is a must!

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