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.
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.
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.