Bettye LaVette is widely — and wisely — revered as one of our greatest living rhythm and blues singers, and maybe right there at the pinnacle. Her star as a knock-down, drag-out, leave-no-prisoners stylist has risen in the decade and a half since she made her return to prominence in her late 50s, 60s and now early 70s after decades of having seemed publicly MIA. But her comeback hasn’t been fueled by mining the great American R&B songbook for material. She’s remade her name these past 15 or so years by putting a blues spin on rock songs, for the most part, in conceptual albums from “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” (in which she covered female singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann) to “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook.” Someone may have been in the kitchen with Dinah — Dinah Washington, that is — but LaVette has been hanging in the parlor with Dylan.
Until now. “Blackbirds” is another concept album, but one that hits a lot closer to home base by looking to the catalogs of the women who were probably heroines to LaVette back when she had her first hit at age 16 in 1962: legends like Washington, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ruth Brown, Nancy Wilson and Della Reese. The sole outlier is a song that’s about “blackbirds” rather than by them: the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” which Paul McCartney has said was inspired by the Black women of the civil rights movement. There’s just one newish pick, “One More Song,” a worthy torch ballad from Sharon Robinson, Leonard Cohen’s frequent co-writer. Everything else is from the 1939-68 period when “Black is beautiful” could have described how these great divas dominated midcentury hi-fis everywhere, before the phrase got codified into the counterculture. That this album, whose underlying purpose is celebrating some of the most powerful and iconic Black women of the previous century, is coming out almost simultaneously with a Black woman being named to a presidential ticket is pure coincidence. But for anyone who likes to believe everything is connected, “Blackbirds” makes for a hell of a companion album for the moment.
Stylistically, only one track sounds like straight period jazz — “Save Your Love for Me,” from a 1962 Nancy Wilson-Cannonball Adderley album — that makes you wish she’d do an entire record of the stuff. But producer-drummer Steve Jordan is interested in finding LaVette the brilliantly sweet spot where a late ’50s jazz combo intersects with an early ’70s funk-soul sound, in a way that doesn’t pay undue fealty to the original versions of these tunes. Her rendition of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” sounds contemporary, as it should. But then, so does anything to which LaVette applies her one-of-a-kind voice — an emotionally intuitive, high-ranging rasp that’s never on the beat when it can be perpetually just off. When LaVette sings the line “Another lyric caught in my throat,” you have to laugh at how well that captures her method: it’s like she’s got a hundred catches in her voice, and you’re left hanging, riveted, on each one. That helps this album’s resurrected paeans to sexy uncertainty sound movingly weathered and remarkably unfamiliar, all at once. As the Beatles would also say: And your bird can sing.