Singer Judith Owen honors musical heroines with joy and New Orleans flavor. Seated before the…
Singer Judith Owen honors musical heroines with joy and New Orleans flavor.
Seated before the audience at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter of New Orleans on a balmy October night, singer and pianist Judith Owen thought back to her deepest joy while growing up in London — her father’s record collection.
She recalled finding, among releases by Jelly Roll Morton and Oscar Peterson, ones by Nellie Lutcher. “I must have been 5 or 6,” she says. “The first thing I heard was ‘Fine Brown Frame.’ Nellie was the first unapologetic lady of jazz and blues. Even as a little girl, not yet understanding the innuendo and the sass, I knew that it made me smile and want to dance around the room.”
Owen held up a program from Lutcher’s 1950 performance at London’s Prince of Wales Theater, which her father had attended, when Lutcher’s stardom on that side of the Atlantic Ocean required a police escort. She recalled hearing Lutcher perform more than 40 years later, in California, well into an extended period of semi-retirement during which Lutcher held a day job. Her performance then was, Owen said, “a lesson in the timelessness and agelessness of music, and of a power that never fades.”
Now 53, Owen has stepped away from her customary piano bench and shifted her focus from the often-introspective original songs and occasionally ironic covers of her previous dozen releases. Come On & Get It (Twanky) is an unabashed celebration of not just the sounds that delighted Owen as a little girl, but also a legacy of women — Lutcher, Julia Lee and Pearl Bailey, among others — “who lived and made music by their own rules, who were singing about sex and celebrating it when nice girls were singing about romance,” she told the crowd seated on Preservation Hall’s wooden benches, which included Lutcher’s granddaughter and daughter-in-law. Owen talked about shining a light on “these women who had schooled me in how to be who I want to be.” After enduring a long, difficult period due to the pandemic, during which Preservation Hall was dark for more than a year, Owen wanted to shine a light, period.
She began her Preservation Hall set as she does her new album, with “Blossom’s Blues,” during which her band conjured the relaxed yet authoritative swing of Blossom Dearie’s 1957 recording (no small feat, considering the presence of bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jo Jones on that original). Yet Owen sang with her own style, bigger and more resonant than Dearie’s, and she changed the lyric — “She ain’t no Red Riding Hood” — from first to third person. Throughout her set, she channeled the musicality of these women and their bands and the intent of the words they chose to sing, while also commenting on them in the here-and-now (when a woman’s autonomy, especially over her body, may be newly in question). Her performance at Preservation Hall and the new album are flecked with sonic details drawn from the original recordings: The catchy rhythm break that came in the middle of Lutcher’s version of “Fine Brown Frame” forms an intro to Owen’s, and on “Tess’s Torch Song,” trumpeter and Preservation Hall regular Kevin Louis’ plunger-muted passages pay direct homage to the ones played by Cootie Williams on Pearl Bailey’s 1944 version with his orchestra.
Yet all this music is cast anew, partly through Owen’s range and command of nuance. Away from her piano, she whispered, purred, snarled, pleaded, testified and declared; she gave it to us straight or with a wink and sometimes both ways within a single song. On the album, singing “Big Long Slidin’ Thing,” she’s a savvy blues shouter, backed by a big band, bending notes to underscore each double-entendre. Her luscious and patient delivery on “Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast” makes room for both the sincerity with which the lyric arrived nearly 60 years ago, when Julie London recorded it, and the irony with which it arrives today. At Preservation Hall, she delivered Peggy Lee’s ballad “He’s a Tramp” with translucence and entrancing focus; the repetition of a single leaning tone split the difference between frustration and longing.
Come On & Get It draws from Owen’s earliest inspirations, distilling the spirits of her musical heroines. It also reflects her life in New Orleans, where she spends half of each year. “This album could only have been recorded here,” she told the Preservation Hall audience. “It needed that grease, that sexiness, that feel you can’t find anywhere else.” And it required the particular core of joy — “like the music is smiling from the inside,” she said — that is as much Preservation Hall’s credo as anything else.
Owen’s bands — there are both small-ensemble and big-band tracks on the new release — feature some of the Crescent City’s finest and wisest players. She calls them her “Gentlemen Callers,” befitting both a period-specific idea about romance as well as Owen’s inclination toward call-and-response sections. On the album, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison’s solo on “He’s a Tramp” is knowing and buoyant. Charlie Gabriel’s tenor sax on “Snatch and Grab It” is real-deal R&B. Evan Christopher’s clarinet soars and sears on two tracks. Drummer Pedro Segundo mines rock-solid yet feather-light grooves throughout; on “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You,” he provides especially easeful propulsion. And, by ceding the piano duties to David Torkanowsky, who serves as music director, Owen imbues this project with a sense of “humidity,” that, according to Torkanowsky, defines the New Orleans sound — you can feel it, along with echoes of the great Allen Toussaint, through his introduction to “He’s a Tramp.”
Come On & Get It marks an empowered turn in Owen’s career, rooted in the boldness of her predecessors. It succeeds also as an expression of artful restraint — in the obbligati from trumpeter Kevin Louis and tenor saxophonist Ricardo Pascal, in Torkanowsky’s pianism and, especially, in Owen’s thoughtful and relaxed singing. Projects like this, for which an acclaimed vocalist wraps herself in a theme, fronts an all-star band and rethinks classic songs, often invite excess: the curse of too many notes. Owen honors the fact that these songs began as perfect miniatures. And she knows, as have smart singers, forceful women and New Orleans musicians throughout time, that, when it comes to sexual and musical allure, a succinct utterance — be it alluring, cutting or tongue-in-cheek— offered up just right and in rhythm says more with less. - Larry Blumenfeld
Photos by Rick Guest.