The Janet Lawson Quintet
The first of two superb records by The Janet Lawson Quintet; their eponymous debut set originally released in 1981 on Inner City.
An astonishing tour-de-force of the jazz singer’s art released at a time when jazz was widely viewed as being artistically moribund and when the market for straight-ahead jazz had shrunk to something of a rump (although the adventurous Inner City label had achieved a certain caché with hard-core jazz aficionados around the world, and notably with the UK’s jazz-funk scene of the late ‘70s). While many of her contemporaries turned to a more commercially viable and often musically unadventurous fusion, Janet Lawson’s record made the case for jazz as a still-exciting, living art-form.
On the face of it, Janet Lawson can be seen as a direct descendant of those jazz giants, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Anita O’Day, equally at home with the precise articulation and interpretation of lyrics, attentive to diction and the nuances of words, and with the ‘pure’ music of wordless improvisation, known as ‘scat’ singing. Whereas someone like the once-great Ella had latterly turned scat into something of a novelty, routinely hammed up for cosy audiences that didn’t want jazz to sound too ‘difficult’, Janet Lawson, like her contemporaries in Europe Ursula Dudziak and Norma Winstone, was working at something altogether ‘deeper’.
From classic ballads like I Thought About You and It Never Entered My Mind, via a superlative Round Midnight and a stunning Jitterbug Waltz (who else ever heard that as a vocal tune?), tunes by singers Bob Dorough (Nothing Like You) and Blossom Dearie (Sunday Afternoon), and a brilliant original, So High (which became a favourite of the UK’s burgeoning jazz-dance scene), Janet Lawson made music that constantly involved the listener in the question of ‘will she/won’t she pull it off..?’ as her daring improvisations achieved exhilarating flights of creativity, and the band as a whole creates a whole range of emotional moods from longing to joy.
This augmented version of the quintet’s album supplements the original track listing with an even more diverse selection of material: Gershwin’s stately Ain’t Necessarily So; the freebop of Joshua, from the book of the second great Miles Davis Quintet; and a version of the Brazilian ballad Dindi, a tune which Janet Lawson had previously recorded and released as a seven-inch single on United Artists.
The Janet Lawson Quintet was an astonishingly tight-knit band, a collective that lived and breathed as one, just like the aforementioned Miles Davis Quintet or the sprawling Mingus band that had originally reinvented Fats Waller’s ’s Jitterbug Waltz as a modern jazz tune. Reed man Roger Rosenberg and pianist Bill O’Connell really sound good enough to have had recording careers as leaders themselves, and drummer Jimmy Madison and bassist Ratzo Harris complete this fine unit. Rosenberg especially really shines, bringing an understated virtuosity to proceedings, at times evoking the tenor giant Ben Webster on those breathy, quiet moments, even whilst playing the unwieldy baritone. His soprano playing is also inspired, leaping about with vim and vitality. O’Connell has less time in the spotlight, shines whenever he is in it, and contributes glorious comping the rest of the time… why have we heard so little of such great musicians? The other members of the rhythm section display an extraordinary sensitivity to the vast sweeps that Janet Lawson’s voice makes, moving from passages of atemporal floatiness into fluid, cooking, straight-ahead bop within moments.
‘When we are in flow,’ says Janet in her book, ‘in harmony with the activities of consciousness, we are “naturally” creative –being brilliant in retort, uncovering dormant gifts, finding that lost chord in every aspect of our lives. It’s the natural way to be.’ One would be hard pressed to find a band more in ‘flow’ than the Janet Lawson Quintet circa 1981 (although their follow up album three years later was equally fine).
Listeners who know Janet Lawson mainly for the much played So High – brilliant as it is – should take the time to investigate the rest of the delights available in this set, quite simply one of the finest jazz records of the past 35 years, and now, in its augmented form, sounding better than ever.