No argument here if you thought Things Have Changed, Bettye LaVette’s 2018 tribute to Bob Dylan, deserved its two Grammy nominations, and perhaps even a mantle-size trophy to boot. Still, for all its merits, that album is no match for Blackbirds, the 74-year-old vocalist’s remarkable follow-up. Reuniting her with drummer/producer Steve Jordan, Blackbirds provides an unwaveringly soulful excursion into R&B, jazz, and pop waters. What’s more, because so many things have indeed changed in 2020, for better or worse, some of the album’s most compelling tracks now resonate in ways that LaVette and Jordan couldn’t possibly have imagined during their collaboration.
Following the murder of George Floyd in May, for example, fans got an early peek at Blackbirds when a quick shift in plans triggered the release of the album’s first single, “Strange Fruit.” Inextricably linked to Billie Holiday’s legacy, the anguished ballad sparks an emotionally searing performance that ranks with LaVette’s career highs—no small thing. “Strange Fruit” is an outlier here, though. Most of the tunes on Blackbirds hew to smartly retooled Southern soul and funk grooves.
Not surprisingly, LaVette and Jordan seem connected at the hip in this setting, but the evocative (and often colorfully nuanced) support they receive from their session mates, especially guitarist Smokey Hormel and keyboardist Leon Pendarvis, adds to the album’s numerous charms. There’s also no mistaking the emotional connection LaVette and Jordan forged with the songs they chose for the occasion. In prime, raspy, expressive form, the singer salutes her guiding lights—the short list includes Nina Simone (“I Hold No Grudge”), Ruth Brown (“Book of Lies”), and Della Reese (“Drinking Again”)—with a potent mix of defiance, passion, joy, and despair.