Banu Gibson, triumphant, by Elsa Hahne
The ebullient woman shining her light in the photograph, Banu Gibson, is a superb singer who doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a singer.
If you have no idea of what she sounds like, here, take a taste:
Banu, Bucky, and Berlin — endearing adult music, no tricks.
I think Banu is undervalued because she is so powerfully distracting as an entertainer, and this is a compliment. We hear the wicked comic ad-libs, we see the flashing eyes, we admire the dance steps, we are entranced by the Show she puts on (that, too, is a good thing) but I think we don’t always hear her fine voice as we should — her warm timbre, her dramatic expression, her phrasing, her intuitive good taste, her swing.
But with her new CD, we have a chance to hear her, deeply. That CD, BY MYSELF, is delightfully swinging, at times poignant. The song list is a perceptive assortment of songs that haven’t been overdone: BY MYSELF / MEET ME WHERE THEY PLAY THE BLUES / ILL WIND / THE MOON GOT IN MY EYES – MOONRAY / WAITIN’ FOR THE TRAIN TO COME IN / YOU LET ME DOWN / UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG / THEY SAY / STOP THE SUN, STOP THE MOON (MY MAN’S GONE) / MY BUDDY / NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS / OH! LOOK AT ME NOW / DAYTON, OHIO – 1903 / OUR LOVE ROLLS ON / LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF CHERRIES. And Banu’s wonderfully empathic band is Larry Scala, guitar; Ed Wise, string bass; Rex Gregory, tenor sax and clarinet; Tom McDermott, piano on DAYTON and OUR LOVE.
Banu is a great connoisseur of songs, with a wide range of under-exposed great ones, as opposed to the two dozen that many singers favor. I’ve only heard her in performance a few times, but when she announces the next song, I always think, “Wow! How splendid! She knows that one!” rather than thinking, “Not another MY FUNNY VALENTINE or GOD BLESS THE CHILD, please, please.”
Song-scholars will notice that a number of these songs have sad lyrics, but this is not a mopey or maudlin disc. Every performance has its own sweet motion, an engaging bounce, as the musicians explore the great veldt of Medium Tempo.
Although a handful of songs on this disc are associated with other singers — Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, and Billie Holiday — BY MYSELF is not in a tribute to any of those great foremothers, nor is there any ill-starred attempt to recapture those recorded performances. If Rex and Larry happen to sound a little like Pres and Charlie Christian on these sides, that is a wonderful side-effect, but no one’s been asked to pretend it’s 1937 and John Hammond is in the studio. Everyone swings gently — the shared goal, with no artificial ingredients.
The disc is not narrow in its conception, either. Banu and the band approach each song as a separate dramatic playlet with its own mood, tempo, and feeling. It’s one of those rare and delicious discs where the emotions are not only intense but fully realized. I could not listen to it all in one sitting — not because it bored me, but because I felt full of sensations after a few tracks, and few CDs are so quietly arresting. Each song is treated tenderly and attentively, and although I suspect the underlying theme of this disc is deeper than “Hey, I haven’t made a CD in a few years and here are some songs I like,” we’re not whacked over the head with one emotion. Rather, it’s as if Banu wanted us to consider the whole spectrum of intimate personal relationships. She and her band have deep true stories to tell, but you have to figure out what they are, performance by performance.
Incidentally, I am snobbish, narrow, hard to please (ask people who have heard me discuss what I do and don’t like) but I fell in love with this disc in the first twenty or so seconds of BY MYSELF, which is a rubato duet between Banu and Larry Scala. (When is the world going to wake up about Scala? Come ON, now! But I digress.) Her diction is remarkable; her solo swing a model, and her voice is rich and full of feeling. Her sweet vibrato is so warm: there’s nothing mechanical in her delivery and her superb phrasing: the second variation on the theme is never a clone of the first. (Hear her variations on “He made a toy of romance!” in MOONRAY: nothing that a lesser artist could do or what have envisioned.) By the way, the Gregory-Scala-Wise swing machine (with two interludes from McDermott) is perfectly lyrical and swinging — Basie plus Lester with Basie taking a smoke break in the hall, or perhaps Skeeter Best / Oscar Pettiford / Lucky Thompson if you prefer. On many singer-plus-band sessions, the disparity between one and the other is sharp, so the listener waits through the instrumental interlude for the Singer to come back, or vice versa. Here, every note seems right, and the result is very affecting.
In the ideal world, Banu and her band would be touring the world — giving concerts and clinics and workshops — and I would hear this music from other cars’ radios when we were at red lights. But until this happens, I commend this splendidly-recorded disc to you: the emotional density of a great volume of short stories combined with the elation of a book of coupons to your favorite ice-cream shoppe. BY MYSELF — after many listenings — seems a series of gems. You can buy it here. You will rejoice.
May your happiness increase!