Esther Bennett’s latest album, Home is Where The Art Is, is an innovative blend of poetry and music, interspersing swing, ballads, Latin and the smooth side of jazz with atmospheric spoken word and vocal percussion.
The journey begins with My Birmingham - a train trip to and through the artist’s home city, blending Didier Messidoro’s musical backdrop and Bennett’s words to take the listener from London to Birmingham, featuring scenes from Bennett’s childhood in the city centre, the Bullring, bus station and other salubrious locations. The album’s artwork, I believe, is a photograph of one of the art bricks placed in the paviors at the time of the Gas Street Basin’s restoration. As a visitor in the 1990s at the time of major works, I remember seeing these placed in locations along the canal, making me want to explore and discover more. This is much the same feeling I had whilst listening to this first track.
A complete change of scene next with Rio de Janeiro Blue, the Randy Crawford bossa nova is given a pared down treatment featuring a smouldering minor flute solo from Duncan Lamont Jr. and some light Rhodes piano to follow from Terence Collie.
Watch a video of Esther singing Rio de Janeiro Blue live at the Hampstead Jazz Club here.
Lush Life Medley begins with voice and piano plus some atmospheric pad backing. It blends Amy Winehouse’s Love is a Losing Game with the evergreen Billy Strayhorn standard. These are two songs with a very similar sentiment, presented effectively together in a melancholic frame.
Suppose is a love poem with another of Messidoro’s reverberant musical backdrops, Bennett reading the words of her poet mother, Dorothy M Bennett. She asks questions of a lover, using spoken word, breath sounds and later sung words, to great effect conveying the message of having found the love of one’s life, yet questioning or perhaps marvelling at the good fortune of the reader.
Mother’s Yorkshire is another Dorothy M Bennett poem tracing her Northern roots and has a tasteful background provided by saxophone and synth pad sounds. Envisaged as a stark depiction of the Dales in that lonely part of the world where Dorothy was brought up by a single parent,
Blissful Fool, based on the chord changes of the jazz standard All of Me, featuring Bennett’s singing voice this time, first brought to mind Mose Allison’s Mind on Vacation, albeit with a different slant; one of the abandonment of rational thought whilst on a journey of romantic discovery rather than Allison’s acerbic blabbermouth putdown. A fun tongue twister of a tune, again featuring Collie’s fine piano accompaniment and soloing.
The Maintenance Fitter, introduced by icicle-laden piano drops and with Bennett’s voice effected with old radio overtones, tells the story of Bennett’s father in his final days. Poignant and resonant, it describes his generation and their understated attitudes to life paired with a touching tale of decline and ultimately, loss. Bennett perceptively likens her father’s body’s breakdown to that of the machines he spent his life maintaining in an automotive component supplier’s workshop.
Bringing the mood up again finally and spectacularly, is the samba treatment of the standard You Go To My Head, with more jaunty flute in lovely latin mode from Lamont, dancing over percussive Rhodes piano from Collie.
Home is Where the Art Is contains an eclectic mix of melody, poetry, and soundscapes. It is a highly individual album the like of which I have not experienced. One for a rainy afternoon, perhaps, as it evokes emotions across the board, but brings a lightness of touch to those tracks which require it. The musicians never ‘over play’ – Bennett herself does not ‘over sing’, giving each piece the attention it deserves without unnecessary milking of emotions or sentiments. This album is indeed a reflection of Bennett’s upbeat attitude to life. The EPK has her final comment as “Here’s to Life!!”
I’ll raise a glass to that.