Legions of jazz singers are out there these days with good chops and solid work. What is often missing, however, is that individual spark, those personal qualities that set the singer apart from the rest. Sathima Bea Benjamin possesses that spark, with a unique, aching quality in her voice that meshes well with the spirituality that informs her song readings. She can seamlessly move from mournful expression to joyous near exultation, and the SongSpirit compendium brims with these gifts.
This sampling of her work on Ekapa Records from 1963 to 2002, recorded across three continents, finds Benjamin in illustrious company: Duke Ellington, Abdullah Ibrahim, Kenny Barron, the underrated Onaje Allan Gumbs, Stephen Scott and Larry Willis, just to mention the pianists. Add drummers Ben Riley and Billy Higgins, bassist Buster Williams, and saxophonists Carlos Ward and Ricky Ford, among others, and you can see the world-class company she keeps.
Ellington accompanies her on "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good, recorded in Paris in 1963, with pizzicato accompaniment from violinist Svend Asmussen. All hands find something new and substantial to say on this 1941 Ducal mainstay. The familiar also comes in the form of "Indian Summer, "I Only Have Eyes for You, "It Never Entered My Mind and "Lush Life (from a non-Ellington-accompanied session), each treatment distinctly her own.
She dresses some of the more familiar songs with Cape Town rhythms (such as "Indian Summer ), and the memories of her homeland also inform her originals: "Africa, "Children of Soweto" and her signature "Music.
One of Benjamin's greatest gifts is her ability to unearth rarely performed gems. This compilation boasts chestnuts from Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf (a deeply felt "Memories of You ), a W.C. Handy and Spencer Williams medley ("Loveless Love/Careless Love ), Noel Coward's "I'll Follow My Secret Heart, and Victor Herbert and Rida Johnson Young's nearly forgotten confection "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life. Essaying these long-ago musical moments, Benjamin completely bares her soul, most marvelously displaying her guileless expression.
Sathima Bea Benjamin does not conform to any singing template or rule book; rather, she uses her considerable gifts to imbue the songs with her individuality, illuminating them from within.
Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life; I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good; Africa; Indian Summer; It Never Entered My Mind; I Only Have Eyes for You; Memories of You; Music; Lush Life; Children of Soweto; I'll Follow My Secret Heart; Loveless Love/Careless Love
Sathima Bea Benjamin: vocals; Kenny Barron: piano (4,9,12); Duke Ellington: piano (2); Henry February: piano (6); Onaje Allan Gumbs: piano (1,3,7,10); Abdullah Ibrahim: piano (5); Stephen Scott: piano (11); Larry Willis: piano (8); Johnny Gertze: bass (2); Basil Moses: bass (6,11); Buster Williams: bass (1,3,4,7,8,9,10,12); Lulu Gontsana: drums (11); Billy Higgins: drums (3,4,8,9,10,12); Makhaya Ntshoko: drums (2); Vincent Pavitt: drums (6); Ben Riley: drums (1,7,); Svend Asmussen: pizzicato violin (2); Carlos Ward: alto saxophone (3,10); Ricky Ford: tenor saxophone (8)