RIP Alison Bentley (1957-2023). A Tribute by Jamie O’Donnell.

The Oxford-based singer, singing teacher and jazz writer Alison Bentley died at the age of 65 in the early hours of last Friday morning, after a long illness, at her home in East Oxford. Saxophonist Jamie O’Donnell, a member of the same 1991-92 cohort in the first postgraduate course in jazz at Guildhall, remembers her, and Sebastian pays tribute to her unique work for LJN. In sadness.

Alison Bentley. Photo by Paul Medley.

Jamie O’Donnell writes:

Alison was a wonderful musician, a beautiful person, a great writer and a friend to many musicians. I feel privileged to count Alison and Kevin as my friends. We first met in 1991 on the jazz course at the Guildhall School of Music. We were there along with a fantastic group of student musicians including Andor Jensen, Anita Wardell, Kate Williams, Dominic Howles, Colin Steele and many others. It was a year that was described by one teacher as particular supportive, friendly, and fun to teach. Phoning and messaging many of these old friends this week, the shock and sadness at losing Alison has shown how much she was loved by so many. I keep hearing her described as being lovely, friendly, kind, and having had a big heart.

Alison loved music, she absolutely loved it. She listened to everything. Playing in her small group at college, I remember having to learn music from a diverse set of musicians such as Milton Nascimento, Joni Mitchell or maybe Steve Coleman. She was open to everything; experimenting with music and using vocalise to create harmony lines and improvised arrangements. Throughout the decades, Alison would always talk excitedly about some new music or some young musician she had heard. She was very confident and strong when singing, and this made it fun and easy to improvise behind her without getting in the way. Her vocal range allowed her to sing a quiet Brazilian tune (in Portuguese of course) or scat on a standard before switching to a belting slow blues. Her compositions revealed her creative feel for voicing, harmony, and rhythm, and her tunes are well represented on her 1994 self-titled album with Jonathan Gee and Mornington Lockett.

My memory is full of sun-soaked afternoons spent with Alison and Kevin at any one of the hundreds of beautiful settings we played over the years. We played in colleges, in gardens, on boats, in bars, in marquees and even in some castles. We played for weddings, for birthdays, for retirements, and all sorts of human celebrations. During the breaks, we would talk about music and laugh over funny stories about gigging, hopefully with a glass of champagne in hand. On one occasion an agent sent us to play as a duo for a wine evening. It seemed livelier than expected and we were certainly surprised to be following a steel band. It turned out a mistake had been made. We were supposed to have been booked for a Hawaiian evening, not a wine evening. We both laughed and stayed for a meal.

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Alison always remembered her friends and she was a grandmaster at remembering to send cards for birthdays and Christmas. She sang a Marvin Gaye song at my wedding, and she gifted my oldest son with the sixth member of our family, a small toy sheep.

Alison really was so lovely, so friendly, so kind, and she really did have the hugest of huge hearts.

Alison Bentley. Drawing by Jo Sandelson. All Rights Reserved

Sebastian writes: Alison wrote her very first review for LJN in 2012, of Michael Janisch’s New Standards Quartet at the Oxford Jazz Festival, and then one from what would be one of Abram Wilson’s last concerts. with a young Reuben James. Her enthusiasm for – and her deep knowledge and love of – a huge range of music shines through in those pieces, as it has in every piece she has written for us since then.

She gave a lovely, thoughtful interview in 2019 to Sebastian Maniura (link below).

There has been a beautiful, grateful tribute from the Belgrade-based singer Maria Amália Baraona on her website, which sums up what Alison brought to the craft of writing about music. Amalia writes:

‘Alison really listened to each and every song, every musician, every detail of the recordings, and I recall the surprise and delight of the sound engineer of one of the recordings when he read a passage of Alison’s review back in 2012 pointing to “…some subliminal electronic treatment on the vocals…”. He said to me “Now, there’s a critic who knows her stuff. She really listened to it!” I only understood the actual treatment she referred to, after reading her text! Each one of the reviews that she wrote of my work, was a lesson to me.’

I loved – and learned lessons from – a favourite piece: Alison’s review of Serena Fissau and Emile Parisien’s 2019 album “So Quiet”. The writing is so empathetic, so full of insights, so informative, so full of detail, and also incredibly well-crafted, i have read and re-read it several times. For her conclusion she quotes a lyric by Caetano Veloso: “A voz de alguém quando vem do coração.” (“Someone’s voice when it comes from the heart”).

Alison has been a lovely colleague and a good friend. On behalf of the LJN team, I know that all of us who knew her feel a deep sense of loss, and offer our deepest sympathies to Kevin. Alison, you always wrote from the heart.

Alison Janet Bentley. Born Bolton 16 December 1957. Died Oxford 22 September 2023.

LINKS: Alison Bentley’s Soundcloud Channel
Alison’s review and feature archive at LJN
Interview with Alison by Sebastian Maniura for IWD in 2019

Categories: News, Tributes

15 replies »

  1. What a wonderful tribute to Alison… I do wish I had met her, but even if I didn’t, the lessons learned from her reviews will always be present in my life!

  2. Alison was an inspiration to us all at St Matthew’s Grandpont in the late 1980’s. Her infectious enthusiasm, her sensitivity as a musician, and her generous inclusiveness earned her love and respect. Rest in Peace Alison.

  3. Alison was still full of joy and laughter when I saw her in August.
    She will be greatly missed, but I know she was full of faith. May she rest in peace, and rise in glory.

  4. I remember the countless times my daughter and I visited her for singing lessons. My daughter is only 8 years old, and we used to see Alison almost every Tuesday for her singing lessons. She was not just a teacher to us but a mentor who inspired my daughter with her passion for music and her warm, nurturing approach.

    When I broke the news to my daughter today, her little heart was filled with sadness, and her eyes welled up with tears. Alison had a profound impact on her, not just as a teacher but as a kind and caring presence in her life.

    Please know that my thoughts are with you during this difficult time. If there’s anything I can do to offer support or assistance, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m here for you.

    Sending you my deepest condolences and warmest wishes,

  5. Such a sad shock and huge loss. I never met Alison in person but I felt very connected to her through the work she did as part of our LJN team over the years. She was a really wonderful, interesting and thoughtful writer who clearly greatly cared about the music and musicians. I always looked forward to reading her work and gained many new favourites – from Leila Martial to Matthieu Saglio – through her reviews and interviews. I’ll miss your emails and writing filled with kindness and insights, Alison. Deepest condolences to your loved ones.

  6. I got to know Alison around 1979 through drama at York Uni. We only met up once every few years but always stayed in touch. Warm-hearted and playful, she never changed at all from when we first met. She played and sang a beautiful version of “Fire and Rain” at my York leaving party with its line “But I always thought that I’d see you again”. So sad to think that we’ve seen each other now for the last time.

  7. I am truly sorry to hear about Alison. We met approximately 14 years ago when she helped my Son with his singing. Thanks to her, he achieved many distinctions in his singing exams. She was truly an inspiration to everyone who had the pleasure to meet her. RIP beautiful soul. Thank you.

  8. Alison’s funeral will be held on Monday 13th November, 2pm, at St Mary and St John’s Church, Cowley Road, Oxford.

  9. Dear Alison,
    Thank you for all you’ve shared
    And all that you’ve taught me
    Your classroom was like
    A universe of its own
    And every lesson
    Is a gift I imbibed
    Like precious pearls
    I’ll treasure for life

    And you live on in the heart
    And you live on in your songs
    And you live on in your words
    And you live on in the notes
    In the notes

    And that’s where
    I’ll find you
    And that’s where
    I’ll hear you
    And thats where
    I’ll remember you
    And that’s where
    I’ll hear you
    I’ll hear you

    Forever a student of yours,

  10. Very very sad news. Alison was a fantastic teacher amongst her many talents and has made the world a richer place to be. Judit you captured it all so beautifully in what you wrote and Alison you will live on and we will miss you.

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