Bettye LaVette took a long time to achieve the success she deserved (and one could reasonably argue she still deserves to be much more famous than she is), in large part because she's hard to pin down stylistically. She's a performer in the tradition of the great Southern soul singers of the '60s, she sings with the fearless emotional depth of a blues artist, and she's willing to linger over a song, investigating its musical and lyrical peaks and valleys, with the thoughtful curiosity of a jazz artist. LaVette clearly doesn't worry about genre, as she's far more concerned with her music than where it's filed, and 2020's Blackbirds is another great example of what she does and how well she does it. Like most of LaVette's albums since her mid-2000s rediscovery, Blackbirds is a themed effort, mostly made up of songs previously recorded by African-American female artists (with the exception of her transformative cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird"), and the set list suggests her smarts in choosing her material is on a par with her skills in front of the microphone. LaVette is one of the finest interpretive singers of her generation, with remarkable instincts about where to take a song, and Blackbirds is absolutely up to her high standards. Producer Steve Jordan (who also plays drums) has given her a band that's supportive without stepping on her performances, and she tackles the songs with an assurance that comes with experience. Anyone who tries to sing "Strange Fruit" is either brave or foolish, given that Billie Holiday's 1939 recording remains the gold standard for that song; LaVette is no fool, and there's an undertow of bitter defiance boiling beneath the surface that not only gives it a fresh accent but emphasizes how unfortunately timely the lyrics are in 2020. On Blackbirds, she also honors Ruth Brown, Nina Simone, and Etta Jones, among others, not by following the lead of the previous recordings of these tunes, but by taking what she's learned from other gifted artists and investing it into her own interpretations that lend the music new life and energy. If you believed there was nothing much left to be discovered in covering the Beatles, listen to the take of "Blackbird" that closes this LP and be amazed at how LaVette turns it into a deeply individual message of strength and survival. The R&B and Top 40 charts weren't quite ready for Bettye LaVette in the '60s and '70s and probably still aren't. However, now that she's earned her reputation as a great American vocalist, Blackbirds is proof that she's not resting on her reputation, and hearing her explore the architecture of a great song is a rare treat to be valued.
© Mark Deming /TiVo