We’re celebrating women in music this month with some of our favourite artists and the music that helped shaped a century of music. The 63rd Annual Grammy Awards were held over the weekend and female artists were the big winners; Beyoncé won her 28th Grammy Award, and broke the record for the most Grammy wins ever by a female artist and most Grammy wins ever by a singer. Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Fiona Apple, and Sarah Jarosz took home multiple Grammy Awards on the night; the awards were held at the Los Angeles Convention Center with performances by select artists in front of empty seats.
Janis Joplin – Pearl
(Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, MFSL 2454, LP)
Selecting Pearl over Cheap Thrills was not an easy choice, but a very clever girl once asked me to include “Me and Bobby McGee” on a playlist for her and I became hooked on this album; and the late singer who passed away tragically at the age of 27 in 1970. Janice Joplin was a rebel, in both her music and personal life. Born into a very conservative family in Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin moved west to California and elevated a struggling psychedelic band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, out of total obscurity and into the limelight with Cheap Thrills. What was clear to all who listened past the overdone arrangements, was that the lead singer with the powerful and blues-charged voice had electricity running though her veins.
Joplin dripped sexuality, but also an intensity that made her rock music soar into the new decade. Pearl featured stripped down arrangements and greater consistency; Joplin was finally allowed to breathe and let her raspy voice and passion for the music erupt; a volcanic release of soul, sexual energy, and pain buried deep inside of her. Her star would burn out far too early, but she was one of the most influential female rock singers of all-time and a tremendous talent that we continue to cherish. – Ian White
Ofra Haza – Yemenite Songs
(Shanachie #SHANCD 64002, CD)
Haza was born In Tel Aviv in 1957, and by the time of her tragic death in 2000 from AIDS-related complications, the Israeli pop star had already influenced a generation of female Israeli, European, and Middle Eastern singers that would pick up her mantle when she was gone. Born to Yemenite parents who had fled Yemen during the anti-Semitic purge of Sephardic Jews from the Arab world following the creation of the State of Israel, Haza became an international star with her combination of traditional Sephardic music, intertwined with Israeli music and European dance pop of the 1980s.
Her success in the face of so much overt hostility to Israeli artists on the world stage was due in part to her powerful voice, showmanship, and ability to mix so many different cultures into her music. She was “Madonna” before the “Material Girl” had ever stepped foot onto MTV. Yemenite Songs was a tribute by Haza to her mother who played her traditional Yemenite music growing up in Israel. The album includes a mix of secular songs plus examples of a devotional style called “diwan,” which is common to all Sephardic Jewish communities and can be sung in either Hebrew, Aramaic, or Arabic. Sadly, none of her music received the recording quality that it deserved – many of her albums on CD (I own 3 on vinyl) are a mixed bag with average (I’m being kind) sonics. – Ian White
Sarah Vaughan – Sarah Vaughan
(Decca/Emarcy/Verve, AEMA 41301, LP)
Among the top ten musicians to come out of the Garden State, Sarah Vaughan gets the least respect and that’s always troubled me. Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra put New Jersey on the map, but Bruce has more talent than Sarah Vaughan? What about Count Basie? Or Whitney Houston? Bon Jovi and Bruce live up the road from me and I run past the tiny home where Springsteen wrote his first two album in Long Branch at least twice a day. Not impressed. Sarah Vaughan was born in Newark (along with Marvelous Marvin Hagler who passed away a few days ago) in 1924 and will forever be part of the elite trio of female jazz singers (Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday) who influenced every artist in the genre for the past 6 decades. Her wide range and ability to pull off bop phrasing in her singing was extraordinary; Vaughan performed in Billy Eckstine’s orchestra and was given the opportunity to perfect her craft alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
She recorded Sarah Vaughan in 1954 as a studio album with Clifford Brown and there are few jazz vocal albums that can touch it. She was at the top of her game during this recording session; her ability to swing, extend her range, and just cut loose – who can perform at this level with such presence in 2021? Nobody. Sarah Vaughan was one of a kind. – Ian White
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
(Island/Universal, 1734128, LP)
So many thoughts pop into one’s head thinking about the late singer who died needlessly before she turned 27; it’s hard not to make the instant connection to Janis Joplin who also died at the same age. Do you remember the first time you heard Amy Winehouse sing? I recall receiving a text from my mother (a welcome surprise because I’ve had to listen to her screaming for 50 years about how nobody can sing anymore) telling me that I had to find this wonderful “Black” singer she just heard on the radio (my father has a vintage McIntosh tuner so don’t feel bad for the old lady) called Amy Winehouse.
Before any woke morons feel the need to drag mom, she survived the Nazis, marched in the civil rights movement, and spent a decade of her life prosecuting child molesters, rapists, and wife beaters. Stubborn Jewish grandma? Absolutely. Racist for thinking Amy Winehouse was a Black soul or R&B singer? Not even close. So did you. You’re lying if you state otherwise.
Amy Winehouse had a sound that certainly invited comparisons to Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and even Lauryn Hill. That she was a working class, Jewish girl from the wrong side of the tracks in the U.K. made her even more fascinating. Her issues with substance abuse and mental illness; not to mention horrible men who used her to further their own careers – sent what could have been a lengthy and rewarding career into the obituary column. Back to Black won 4 Grammy Awards and catapulted her career and sadly offers a bittersweet taste of what could have been. While not on the album, Winehouse’s cover of “Valerie” which was originally performed by the Zutons is a must own. – Ian White
Sister Rosetta Tharpe – Live in 1960
For anyone unfamiliar, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the great pioneers of electric guitar and gospel music. Interesting combination, no? She became popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s for her unique brand of rhythmic, gospel music. She was also among the first to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar. I admittedly had not heard of Tharpe long before this release from Vinyl Me, Please in 2017. Since then I’ve seen more and more mention of her work, and in 2018 she was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Live in 1960 is a great jumping off point to experience the heart and soul of the inimitable Sister Rosetta Tharpe. – Lauren Halliday
I’m With Her – See You Around
I’m With Her is a trio of three of my favorite folk musicians – Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz. Each woman is supremely talented and well-known in their own right, but when they are together they are an absolute force. After years of collaborating, they finally came together to release an album, See You Around, in 2018. I had the opportunity to see them live on the tour in support of the record and it was truly amazing to watch them play off each other onstage, effortlessly trading vocal lines and harmonies in every song. If you appreciate great musicianship, you will love I’m With Her as well as any of the ladies’ solo efforts. – Lauren Halliday
Yuko Mabuchi Trio – Yuko Mabuchi Trio (2017)
Yuko Mabuchi was born and raised in Fukui, Japan. She started playing classical piano at age 4. In her teens she fell in love with R&B, hip-hop and blues before developing an interest in jazz. After high school she took up the study of jazz piano in Kyoto under Kunihiro Kameda, and began performing as both soloist and trio member. In 2010, she moved to Los Angeles to continue her jazz studies, and while there performed at several top L.A. venues.
Three years later she returned to Japan, where she performed extensively with her trio before returning permanently to the United States in 2016. This self-titled album is her third, and was recorded live in 2017 at the USC Cammilleri Hall, with regular trio members Del Atkins on bass, and Bobby Breton on drums. The program is made up mostly of standards, along with one self-penned number, and a beautiful medley of traditional Japanese songs played in a jazz style. Mabuchi’s playing is melodic and mature, with a strong sense of rhythm, and at various points expresses her love of modern American music and her classical training.
I love this album for so many reasons, including its blend of modern and traditional styles, and Japanese and western sensibilities; in spite of these diverse influences, it is a remarkably cohesive outing. As a bonus, it’s wonderful to see a young woman making waves in the traditionally male-dominated jazz genre. – Eric Pye
Billie Eilish – Live at Third Man Records
Billie Eilish doesn’t get a lot of respect from the audiophile crowd and I must confess that it baffles me. She is extremely talented and it shows on this live album that was recorded at Third Man Records on November 6, 2019. The release is limited to 10 tracks, and there is a limited amount of interaction between Billie and the crowd. The naysayers should give her cover of “Ocean Eyes” a serious listen because it is a standout track on the album; her songwriting is quite clever and she clearly connects with a younger generation of listeners who find real meaning in her lyrics. – Jeremy Sikora
Henryk Gorecki – Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
If you’re not a huge fan of classical music, you might want to lower your guard for a moment and give this wonderful recording a chance; the performance is a collaboration between Beth Gibbons of Portishead, and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Gibbons takes a genuine chance with this recording and her hauntingly beautiful vocals make this album a surprising find. The recording is a standout; remarkably clear and the engineering allows Gibbons voice to really stand out and I can’t imagine any Portishead fans not walking away impressed by the range of her voice. Pushed to handle far more complex material, Beth Gibbons shows that she’s capable of far more as an artist. – Jeremy Sikora