The wise intuition and emotional commitment of Bettye LaVette’s interpretative skills find an ideal setting on “Blackbirds,” a collection of songs mostly associated with Black women, from Nina Simone to Billie Holiday.
Supported by a quartet including producer-drummer Steve Jordan, keyboardist Leon Pendarvis, guitarist Smokey Hormel and bassist Tom Barney, LaVette’s customary transformation of the source material intensifies its sentiments, whether of abandonment, yearning and even sheer brutality, as on “Strange Fruit” and its recurrent relevance.
Blending soul, jazz and blues and recorded as if on an intimate stage, “Blackbirds” has substantial emotional heft.
The songs on the nine-track album, which also features a string quartet on several tunes, include details that LaVette recognizes and embraces as connections to her own life, with the personal links boosting their resonance, even if they may remain hidden from outsiders.
With its smooth electric piano and biting guitar lines, “I Hold No Grudge” sounds earthier, less grand than Simone’s version, but LaVette still gets the message across: “I’m the kind of person/You might hurt once in a while/Crawling ain’t my style.”
“Drinking Again,” inspired by Dinah Washington’s take, is a torch song that sets fire to the underbrush and then descends even deeper into despair and solitude. LaVette sings it like a premature eulogy, its pain smashing to bits any hopes of reunion or reconciliation.
“Blues for the Weepers,” based here on Della Reese’s version, is a singer’s mission statement, while “One More Song,” from longtime Leonard Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson, is an end-is-near lament. “Romance in the Dark” injects an extra dose of lust into Lil Green’s already sensual blues.
The closing track is Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.” It could be the odd one out, but it’s one of the album’s key moments, with LaVette making it autobiographical and lifting it to new dimensions.
“I took my broken wings/and taught my own self how to fly,” LaVette sings on top of gentle acoustic guitar and bass and empathetic strings, an intense and memorable self-portrait.
LaVette’s travails in the music business have been many and extensive, her talents mostly hidden from wider view for decades until a resurgence this century that seems to have brought her as much fulfillment as joy and awe to her listeners.