Review by Brad Walseth
Sathima Bea Benjamin is a 71-year-old jazz singer from South Africa, whose unreleased 1959 recording My Song For You is considered the first jazz recording made in that country. After the Sharpesville Massacre in 1960, she and her husband, pianist Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim) fled to Zurich, Switzerland, where Benjamin met Duke Ellington and convinced him to produce Brand's record. Ellington agreed, and the subsequent album was a success. But what is not as well known is that Ellington insisted on producing an album for the singer herself. Recorded in 1963, A Morning in Paris was "lost" until duplicate tapes were found in the mid-'90s. A new re-release of this lost gem has now been made available and is an album that connoisseurs of vocal jazz will want to add to their collections.
Benjamin, then only 23, was backed by Ibrahim on piano, bassist Johnny Getze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko, with the unusual addition of Svend Asmussen on pizzicato violin. The plucked violin sounds at time like gypsy guitar, but with a flavor all its own. Ibrahim's piano work is gracious in caressing support of Benjamin's reverb-drenched voice. Vocal influences like Ella and Billie are present, but Benjamin's youthful approach is fresh and appealingly her own.
In addition, both Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn back the singer on piano on two tracks each. In a recording featuring lovely takes of standards like "Darn That Dream," "I Got it Bad and That Ain't Good" and "Lover Man" one of the standouts is the knockout version of Ellington's "Solitude," a song Benjamin would never sing again out of respect for this memory. Another highlight, is the haunting cover of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," with Strayhorn, who surprisingly was unfamiliar with the song before the session.
Since the '70s, when she and Ibrahim moved back to South Africa, Benjamin has released several well-received albums while taking an active stand in the human rights struggle of her home country. The re-release of this fine overlooked album from her early career may well serve to garner more attention to the singer's overall work.