When Bea Benjamin (or Sathima as she was nicknamed by Johnny Dyani) and Dollar Brand (who would change his name to Abdullah Ibrahim when he changed his faith) arrived in Zurich as self imposed exiles from apartheid their prospects cannot have been good. They knew few people, didn't speak French or German, and had little money.
That would all change when Benjamin managed to persuade their hero Duke Ellington to come and listen to them perform after a concert he was giving in the city. Ellington, recently given an A&R role at Reprise by its owner Frank Sinatra, loved what he heard of the pianist and the singer. He booked both of them into a recording session in Paris a few days later and out of this came Brand's Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio. However, the session also produced about twelve tracks which highlighted Benjamin's singing. For reasons that are not clear these were not released at the time and only saw the light of day in 1997 because an engineer kept a copy of the tapes.
Both Benjamin and Brand had grown up loving the music of Ellington and it seemed a natural move for them to record his songs. However, Benjamin continued to return his music. She recorded Prelude to a Kiss with Brand in 1969, sang with Ellington at a Jazz Vespers service in New York in 1972, in 1976 staged a concert tribute to Ellington in Harlem and in 1979 she recorded this record.
Sathima's musical development was marked by the influence of American jazz musicians, including Ellington as well as singers such as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and more 'pop' singers such as Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. She has also spoken of the influence of the church on her singing as well as of South African songs, both traditional and modern. So, like most South African jazz musicians, her musical style was born from a mix of different and competing influences which came together to produce something unique.
There is nothing on this record that sounds as though it could only have come from Africa. However, Benjamin's take on these tracks is truly her own and, whether it is the glacial tempos, the sparse accompaniment or her precise and subtle singing style, she sounds as though she could not be an American singer much less a European one.
Benjamin is sympathetically backed by Americans Onaje Allan Gumbs on piano, Vishnu Woods on bass, John Betsch on drums and Claude Latief on congas.
My favourite track on the album is Benjamin's take on Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life. She really seems to encapsulate the world weary, dissipated, disappointed but still resilient essence of Strayhorn's lyrics. I can believe that she really has been through the 'too many through the day, twelve o'cocktail.' and that she will 'rot with the rest of those whose lives are lonely too'. Gumbs' is terrific and Betsch provides just enough brushing on the drums. It is truly moving and unique take on a classic song.