Betty Lavette’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

6 out 10: Professional covers from a professional soul singer

Most every black performer of the 60s and 70s covered a song made famous by someone white at one stage or another, and, with the exception of Nina Simone, most every black performer sounded awkward singing songs that were unsuited to their voices. So many missteps in the past make an album of British rock songs sung by the seasoned soul singer Bettye Lavette seem positively ghastly, but, to her credit, Lavette makes every one of these songs her own.

Lavette had never heard any of the original versions of the songs on Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook before recording them, not even I Wish You Were Here, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood or Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. Without years of admiration weighing her down, Lavette has been able to interpret these songs freely, transforming each and every one of these relatively traditional rock songs into prime soul and funk.

Such free turns from the originals are always of interest, but interest soon wanes as one discovers that many of the very elements that made these songs great are lost in the process. On The Beatles’ The Word, there’s no innocent glee; on The Rolling Stones’ Salt of the Earth, there’s no cracked, common-man singing that evokes working-class solidarity. Instead, everything is turned over to the soul-101 treadmill, Lavette’s exceptional rasp nonetheless a genre cliche.

Lavette’s approach does, however, work well on songs that have dated poorly. Shorn of their awful production, Led Zeppelin’s All My Love and George Harrison’s Isn’t It A Pity shimmer more brightly with their freshly-applied soul sheen. Overall, though, while Lavette reconfirms her status as a true soul professional, she fails to make any great impression despite how adeptly she interprets material made in a foreign style.

Nabokov’s Ratings

Everytime I read this, I giggle:

My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music. My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.

It’s Nabokov, being droll yet again, and so effective at doing so because of the last item on a list of otherwise humdrum loathings and pleasures.

Duke Ellington on the Whole World Going Oriental

Duke Ellington went rock and began taking on musical influences from around the world on his ridiculously good The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. Not only is the album a landmark of reinvention, it begins with a startlingly mad and entertaining Duke monologue, one so good I’ve transcribed it for posterity below:

This is really this chinoiserie. Last year, we, about this time, we premiered a new suite titled The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. And of course the title was inspired by a statement made by a Mr. Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto. Mr. McLuhan says that the whole world is going oriental and that no one will be able to retain his or her identity, not even the orientals. And of course, we travel around the world, a lot, and in the last five or six years we too have noticed this thing to be true. So as a result, we have done a sort of a thing, a parallel or something, and we’d like to play a little piece of it for you.

In this particular segment, ladies and gentlemen, we have adjusted our perspective to that of the kangaroo and the didgeridoo. This automatically throws us either down under and/or out back, and from that point of view it’s most improbable that anyone will ever know exactly who is enjoying the shadow of whom.

Harold Ashby has been inducted into the responsibility and the obligation of possibly scraping off a tiny bit of the charisma of his chinoiserie, immediately after our piano player has completed his rikki-tikki.

Mulatu Astatke @ The Forum, 2nd May 2010

8 out of 10: A master finally receiving his dues

It’s an unlikely story: one of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s biggest drawcards is Mulatu Astatke, a 67-year-old Ethiopian jazz musician whose superb compositions had sunk into obscurity after civil war and famine engulfed his homeland with the Derg’s disastrous rise to power in 1974. Ever so justly, a volume of the French-produced Ethiopiques series devoted to his classic recordings and the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers paved the way for his journey to Melbourne’s shores and the long-due recognition of his status as a musician of the highest order.

Astatke’s compositions are sexy, atmospheric, smooth, melding Latin rhythms and jazz arrangements with traditional Ethiopian music. His melodies slither snake-like across sumptuous beds of sparse, hypnotic funk, and if one were ever to be sipping martinis and smoking hookahs in a steamy harem on the trail of a two-bit hustler, no doubt it would be Astatke supplying the musical backdrop.

Recent years have been busy musically for Astatke. He’s collaborated with the Heliocentrics and the Either/Orchestra as well as releasing an album of mostly original material just this year. And at the Forum tonight, he plays for the first time with Australia’s own purveyors of music from around the world, the Black Jesus Experience.

Astatke takes centre stage in traditional Ethiopian dress. Softly spoken, he unassumingly introduces each song before stepping back behind the vibraphone or some percussion and playing. Astatke allows his compositions be the primary focus, eschewing overlong solos and any trace of self-indulgence so that his melodies and harmonies, which sound so naturally distinctive to an ear raised on Western music, effortlessly beguile the audience.

Detracting from the performance, however, is a too-loud horn section. When the trumpet and two saxophones are blown in concert, the sound overpowers the rest of the delicately arranged music, bludgeoning what else is being played rather than blending with it. The Black Jesus Experience is not as tight as one would like to begin with either. As the night goes on, though, the band does grow into the music, and by the time Astatke turns to his more upbeat numbers, compositions such as Yegelie Tezeta and Sabye positively shine.

Tonight, Astatke reconfirms his place in the musical pantheon. Such heavenly music makes you think the Rastafarians might have been half-right after all: an incarnation of the divine was born in Ethiopia, even if it wasn’t Emperor Haile Selassie as they suppose.