Welsh-born singer Judith Owen has strong stories to tell in her new album “Come On and Get It”, which will be released in September, and a great team to help her tell them. There is musical royalty from the city of New Orleans – where she and husband Harry Shearer have made their home for a substantial part of every year since 2006. There is also John Fischbach as producer of the album, a man probably best known for a fruitful two years in the 1970s spent working with Stevie Wonder as producer/engineer of “Songs in the Key of Life”. Interview by Sebastian Scotney,
Judith Owen vividly remembers that her father, operatic tenor Handel Owen, had a 45rpm single by R&B/jazz singer and pianist Nellie Lutcher (1912–2007). His record collection was mostly of opera, so this record, of Lutcher singing Fine Brown Frame stood out as different. “As a little girl – not understanding the sexuality of it at all – I just remember feeling the joy, and this wonderful spirited and unapologetic woman at the piano.”
When Owen moved to LA, she got the opportunity to hear her. Lutcher had been in retirement for most of fifty years. “I couldn’t believe it was her, performing for one of the very last times. This little sparrow of a woman, eighty-nine years old, comes out and sits at the piano in the Cinegrill at the Roosevelt Hotel, and plays and sings like she’s twenty-one. Unbelievable. I hugged her. I cried.”
It was only when Judith Owen started to live in the US that she realised that the “humorous bold and sexy songs” by artists like Nellie Lutcher, and also Julia Lee, were far better appreciated on the other side of the Atlantic than they had ever been in the US. “I thought they would be stars in America, but of course they weren’t.” That feeling of how strong and authentic their songs are, but also how neglected they have been, spurs Judith Owen on to make the women and their songs better known. A generation or two after the heyday of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, these were “humorous, bold, sexy songs with plenty of tongue in cheek and winking.” That is also the tone of Blossom Dearie’s Blossom’s Blues, which is the first single to be released from the new album.
Judith Owen explans how, in the absence of touring during lockdown, her music had time to develop. It was all made and recorded in New Orleans, with Judith Owen working closely with pianist MD David Torkanowsky and other musicians from the city. For example there are players who are regulars at Preservation Hall, saxophonist Charlie Gabriel, a veteran of both the Ellington and Basie bands, and trumpeter Kevin Louis. There is also Jason Marsalis – “he plays vibes like you’ve never heard”, and trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
The seven videos that will be released in anticipation of the album launch were filmed in historic music venues in New Orleans: Preservation Hall and One-Eyed Jack’s. Getting deeper into the tradition makes Owen reflect about the way music gets made in New Orleans: “There is a ‘greasiness’ and a sexiness in the music down here any night of the week that is to do with where it comes from: brothels and burlesque.”
But Owen has really found joy in immersing herself in – and marvelling at – all that is vibrant and healthy about the musical culture of New Orleans: “You wouldn’t believe the sheer amount of music going on every night of the week!” And what about the vibe of this album? “I’ve done deep and meaningful – what I wanted to grasp here this time were moments of joy!”
LINKS: Judith Owen’s website