LP Review: Bea Benjamin with Dollar Brand - African Songbird



Bea Benjamin with Dollar Brand - African Songbird
(Matsuli Music MM103. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)


Reports of the death of vinyl were greatly exaggerated. Indeed, it’s now become a golden age for reissues of rare recordings — as evidenced by the release of this latest lost treasure from Matsuli Music, a label set up in London by Matt Temple to resurrect sought-after afro-jazz classics from South Africa. African Songbird features Sathima Bea Benjamin and Abdullah Ibrahim — or simply Bea Benjamin and Dollar Brand, as they then were.

Sathima Bea Benjamin is a vocalist from Cape Town who sang with the Dollar Brand Trio and the Jazz Epistles in the early 1960s. Acclaim followed on her 1963 European tour with Brand, to whom she was married for many years. Duke Ellington rushed her into the studio in Paris to record with himself and Billy Strayhorn, for her debut on Reprise. But the sessions didn’t see the light of day. Legend has it that Frank Sinatra, who owned Reprise, vetoed them as uncommercial (they are now thankfully available on an Enja CD, ENJ-9309 2).

Benjamin didn’t have much luck with records — her premiere LP session with Brand in 1959 had also been shelved. Finally, in 1976, her first album was released. African Songbird was a milestone of spiritual jazz, but it appeared on the pioneering boutique Johannesburg label As-shams (‘The Sun’) and consequently only a few hundred copies ever escaped into the wild…

Matt Temple is to be congratulated for making the record available once more, in a genuinely beautiful package, on 180gram vinyl in a heavy cardboard gatefold cover complete with a specially printed new sheet of notes which are detailed and informative — even including a further-reading list! This is clearly a labour of love, and the album deserves it.

The splendid vinyl reissue of African Songbird opens with a cavernous, spacious, enormous sound, Bea Benjamin’s voice is introduced by Dollar Brand’s plangent, lingering electric keyboards before the ensemble joins in like rolling thunder. The vibrant plucked bass (provided by Louis Spears, Basil Moses and Lionel Beukes) briefly dominates before Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee’s flute comes weaving in around the vocal with Brand’s delicate electronic keyboard offering judicious comments. Coetzee also plays tenor sax with a huge, rich tone that sweeps across the soundscape.

The album consists of three long tracks, all composed by Bea Benjamin and arranged and conducted by Dollar Brand. Side One is devoted to Africa which, as noted, features the haunting, forceful sax of Coetzee. Although its centrepiece is always Bea Benjamin’s sweet, raw, ecstatic vocals, Africa later gives way to a funky keyboard odyssey accompanied by the hippest of percussion courtesy of drummers Doug Sides and Monty Weber, before Benjamin returns for an ending of hallucinatory intensity. Here trumpeter Billy Brooks (formerly with Lionel Hampton) distinguishes himself by providing eerie atmospherics and licks of exquisite urgency.

The first track on Side Two, Music, is again a showcase for Basil Coetzee’s wonderfully precise, lyrical flute and the easy, sweet rolling bass work of Spears, Moses and Beukes, with incisive. sparse drumming and shimmering cymbal work from Sides and Weber.

The final piece on the record is the title track, on which Benjamin sings unaccompanied except by some poignant and evocative sound samples of waves and seabirds which might be outtakes from Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay. This superb album is over all too soon.

Well, we’ve reached the point of the review where I have to tell you that the LP comes with a free digital download code, and it is also available on CD. But if you want the full vinyl experience, I’d advise you not to postpone for long. This lovely LP is limited to a pressing of one thousand copies. As of this writing there are only 200 left and it is selling fast…

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