Betty Bryant • Lotta Livin’

With the UK state pension now standing at 68 for people born in 1987—and likely to rise further, given our shambles of an economy and the absolute shower running it—I’m becoming worried that I may be working into my seventies. Betty Bryant had no such concerns, it seems: the veteran vocalist, pianist and composer is still clocking on in her nineties, having just released her fourteenth record at the grand old age of 94. I only wish I loved my job so much. (My other job, that is: I’d quite happily go on reviewing jazz for a living indefinitely, if one could make a living doing it.)

Known to friends and fans as “Cool Miss B,” Bryant’s professional musical career began back in 1955, having studied piano under Desdemona Davis (pianist with Morrison’s Jazz Orchestra and the Ted Lewis Jazz Band, and a definite candidate for one of my forgotten ladies features). An engagement at Beverly Hills’ Ye Little Club led to solo work around LA, which was her launchpad for an international touring career. Bryant became the house pianist at celeb chef Susan Feniger’s Street restaurant, as well as making regular trips to Tokyo where she often graced the upmarket Tableaux Lounge.

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Her style blends blues and jazz influences, mixing twelve-bar chord progressions and dominant sevenths aplenty with jazzy melodic vocals, making for a sound which manages to be both brooding and uplifting. Her voice is measured, slightly quavering, but pitch-perfect with it. Confidently demure, Bryant never raises the volume above a speaking tone on Lotta Livin’—like the karate master who terrifies foes with a softly spoken monosyllable. (It just occurred to me whose pleasantly rasping voice Bryant’s reminds me of: Japanese jazz songstress Mai Yamane, who is several decades her junior.)

This is only a nine-track disc, but who in their right mind could diss its nonagenarian creator for that? It mixes standards such as “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and “Stormy Monday” with four Bryant originals: “Put a Lid on It” is the humorous, swinging blues of a woman who has had it up to here with her man; “Blues to Get Started” is an instrumental twelve-bar toe-tapper, spotlighting Bryant’s bopping piano work; “Katydid” is a somewhat cryptic, minor-key number which is not about bush crickets; and “Chicken Wings” is a cute poem-cum-rap about eating chicken wings—of course—featuring rhythmic clapping and Robert Kyle’s greasy blues harp, evoking summer nights jamming on the stoop.

Bryant’s takes on the classics are just as curious: “The Very Thought of You,” for instance, gets a Latin-ish twist showcasing Kleber Jorge’s strumming guitar, giving the excessively sentimental standard a sunkissed vibe. On the other hand, her treatment of “Baby All the Time” takes a darker turn than most other versions, with nary a major chord to lift the black cloud settling over it. It all makes for an album which is rich in variety and provides plenty of aural interest, without ever stepping outside of the old-time jazz and blues oeuvre.

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Of course, I couldn’t possibly wrap up without addressing Bryant’s keyboard work. As with her understated singing, her playing takes a less-is-more approach. It’s the playing of a long-lived lady who has heard it all, tried it all and distilled it down to a liquor which is potent, punchy and pleasant without the need for mixers or artificial flavorings. Her bandmates are all very capable, both solo and in support, but quite rightly leave their egos at the door and let veteran Betty have the limelight.

Like Bryant’s previous work—2019’s Project 88—this album is enchanting from beginning to end. I’ll be keeping an eye out for her centennial record, which will surely be forthcoming in about 2030. Check out Bryant’s Bandcamp or for more info about Lotta Livin’, and to get your hands on this very enjoyable and frankly humbling disc.

Dave Doyle is a swing dancer, dance teacher, and journalist based in Gloucestershire, England. Write him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DaveDoyleComms.

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