- Jesse Hamlin
Barbara Dane shows her mellower side in new album
Barbara Dane, the venerable folk, blues and jazz singer whose associates have included Louis Armstrong, Lightnin’ Hopkins and the Chambers Brothers, never liked listening to her records, for the same reason many artists don’t: She hears what she could have done better.
But Dane really likes her new one, “Throw It Away ...,” her first album in 14 years. It’s probably the most intimate release by the soulful, big-voiced singer and activist, whose 1957 debut recording, “Trouble in Mind” — and her rousing performances with San Francisco trombonist Turk Murphy and other New Orleans jazz devotees — made a big impression on musicians and audiences. (Jazz critic Leonard Feather memorably called her “Bessie Smith in stereo.”)
“This last record, for some reason, I can listen to,” says Dane, 89, on the phone from her Oakland home. “I know its shortcomings — no, that’s not the right word. I know the choices I made, and the ones I made, I like. I’m not shocked by what I can’t do anymore, but I’m pleased with what I can do.”
Dane’s range and belting power have diminished, but not the dusky warmth of her alto or the saucy snap and emotion of her unadorned singing. She has artfully adapted to the physical changes wrought by time.
“In your mind, you know you can’t make that note, so you make another note, and that can be equally beautiful,” Dane says.
She credits pianist Tammy Hall, who arranged the music on the record — a pleasing mix of Memphis Minnie blues, traditional folk songs (with Dane lyrics) and tunes by writers as diverse as Abby Lincoln, Fats Waller, Leonard Cohenand Lennon and McCartney — with freeing her to sing in new ways.
A subtle accompanist and swinging improviser, Hall opens musical doors, “holds me up, points the way,” says Dane, who will celebrate the release of “Throw It Away ...” on Wednesday, Aug. 24, at Yoshi’s with Hall and the other expert musicians on the record: bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Bill Maginnis and Dane’s son, Pablo Menéndez, on harmonica.
Dane wrote a list of songs she wanted to sing — only later seeing that “I got a nice eclectic mix” — and sent it to Hall. “She does what she calls her homework and I call her magic,” Dane says. “She shows up and we just do it.”
Dane sings her own lyrics to the sensuous Duke Ellington ballad “All Too Soon,” telling a little romantic tale based loosely on her own experience. In her case, the liaison “turned into a 43-year marriage,” say the thrice-married singer.
She dedicates her spare, affecting version of the Beatles’ “In My Life” to her three kids: Pablo, who lives in Havana (in 1966, Dane was the first American artist to tour post-revolutionary Cuba); Nina Menéndez, who produces the Bay Area Flamenco Festival; and Jesse Cahn, a songwriter and music teacher in Oklahoma.
“They are the most precious things in my life,” she says. “And it’s exactly what I wanted to say. I wanted to be very direct.”
Dane always appreciated and listened to old folks, she says, “and now I am one. I don’t sound like a pretty young dolly. I think I sound like what I feel like inside, which is pretty mellow.”