Appreciating Cleo Laine

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

For those who have been
on Mir forever and don’t know her work, Cleo Laine is an English
singer who began in modest dance halls in the 1950s and now tours the world
with her husband/ bandleader/reed player John Dankworth. Together they produce
music of almost astonishing generosity, brilliance and surprise, which ranges
from arrangements of the standard songbook to settings of Shakespeare to ardent
and vivacious music based on everything from Mozart to W.C. Handy. She masters
music from Benjamin Britten to The Merry Widow. She and her husband years
ago created a center in rural England near where they live, one of the first
havens for the open-minded zest for sound that is now called world music. She
has an immense voice with the up-and-down swoop and range of a fighter plane,
and a direct and frontal manner that banishes indifference.

In 1983 she was the first
British artist to win a Grammy (when that was still a serious award to win,
not largely a reward for adroit p.r. and industrial amplification) for the third
of her ‘live’ at Carnegie Hall albums. She was recently pronounced
a dame by the English system of royal awards–joining, among others, Joan
Sutherland and Judi Dench. However much you may detest such an elitist symbol,
in the arts it is in fact largely based on overwhelming merit. Laine has gained
it not only for her music but for a career in English and American theater that
would itself fulfill an ambitious actor. I count myself fortunate to have met
her after the performance of a Saroyan play in London in which a friend was
appearing, and then we all had a warm fine gabble in the pub next door until
the laws of the land pushed us out onto the drizzly street at 11.

Laine and Dankworth changed
jazz and popular music in England along with Ronnie Scott, whose Soho club was
the bustling center for lively music before the Liverpudlians and the Stones
and many others spread the musical wealth beyond London. It was Laine and Dankworth
who unpeeled the strange snobbery that surrounded English artistic life when
their versions of Shakespeare and other upscale writers set to music became
popular throughout the English system. English music was never the same after
their Shakespeare and All That Jazz of l964. Rather crisply, this half-English
half-Jamaican diva helped open up the hidebound classbound musical culture of
England. Music hall and concert hall met over music. Rather suddenly, there
was no conflict between what was fine and what was fun. And then when the music
critic of The Times of London wrote a serious (and itself much-criticized)
analysis–standards! standards!–of the music of the Beatles, even referring
to their use of the Mixolydian mode, the class structure of what you could get
in your ears had begun to disappear. And you can argue that Laine and Dankworth
started it.

They were in New York at
Feinstein’s at the Regency for two weeks recently. I was there for the
final night and would have been for more had the ticket to ride not been so
steep, which Dankworth himself noted from the stage. But the experience of hearing
them in an intimate and elegant setting was priceless. It was indescribably
perfect. When they performed Dankworth’s "Turkish Delight," which
involves a tight GoreTex interweave of voice and reed, their joy was plain in
their complete mastery of the perilously difficult music and its ambitious exoticism.
When Laine launched into a broad blues number with as much authority as in "All
the World’s a Stage," there was no alternative but to give up to a
master. When the fine quartet opened with a vivacious composition by the drummer
Jim Zimmerman, it was clear this was to be an eclectic ride. Laine’s torchy
version of Vincent Youmans’ "Tea for Two" turned that English
beverage into a slow-acting but potent highball. She moved from the fine song
"The Lies of Handsome Men" by the New Yorker Francesca Blumenthal
to Jerome Kern’s last song, which he never heard. I had thought I should
note down the details of the performance when I realized I wanted to write this
column about it. But I couldn’t bear to break the spell with pen and paper.
I couldn’t do anything on my own. I was lost to the power of the music.

And to the precision, tact
and dignity of the words. No recklessly violent words of explicit antipathy
to countless categories of human, from women to men to homosexuals to heterosexuals
to whites to blacks to soldiers to cops to Nigerians to Hispanics. It’s
quite clear that there’s a violence if not generation gap between the producers
of the love songs that so abundantly fill cabarets and the hate songs that pack
arenas. Not that the love songs are only saccharine and dim–they verge
from the pitiless archness of Cole Porter to the more demanding assertion of
Katie Webster’s blues song "No Bread? No Meat."

And the gap is not simply
a generation or a degeneration matter–there have always been ghastly songs,
and presumably always will be. But there may be an intimacy issue. Could Eminem
ever fill the small Feinstein’s room? Or is he too small? Is the kind of
warmth and detailed scrutiny that marks the cabaret culture unavailable any
longer to people who have not been marinated in life’s ambiguity? Are they
unable to receive let alone produce the acute observations that are the spine
of that body of songs that lights up so many dusky saloon evenings?

Wish you had been there,
with John and Cleo.