We last visited pianist, vocalist and composer, the now 94-year-young Betty Bryant when she celebrated her 88th birthday with her 2019 release Project 88 and despite the loos of most of her vision, she’s still belting out her trademark mix of blues and jazz. Bryant is one of the last links to the Kansas City jazz of Jay McShann. Bryant, who grew up in that city, has been in Los Angeles since 1955, and aside from her KC musical stylings, has never looked back. Lotta Livin’ is her 14th album. Like just about all her albums, she continues her three-decade collaboration with saxophonist and flutist Robert Kyle who both played on and produced this one along with frequent collaborators drummer Kenny Elliot, and bassist Richard Simon. Augmenting that core unit are Hussain Jiffry on electric bass, guitarists Kleber Jorge and Yu “Big Poppa” Ooka, and percussionist Kevin Winard each on one track and trumpeter Tony Guerrero on two tracks. Bryant sings and plays piano on the nine tracks. The album will be available digitally on 1/26 and physical CDs at Bandcamp.
Bryant penned four tracks, displaying her wit, and drawing on some rather quirky subject matter for a couple of the songs. Along with those originals, she puts her singular spin on both blues and jazz classics which she and/or Kyle uniquely arranged. The album begins with the familiar Arlen-Koehler classic, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,’ with Bryant rendering a syncopated reading, rich with well- articulated vocal phrasing, a deeply soulful turn from Kyle on tenor, and bluesy swinging piano from the nonagenarian, and brief statements from Simon and Elliott. Listen to Bryant flirtatiously coo the last verse as only she can. This sultry side shines even more noticeably on her spine-tingling cover of Bobby Troup’s “Baby, Baby All the Time” with Kyle shifting to simpatico flute. Yet she can clever show disdain too as she artfully complains about her man in the blues shuffle “Put a Lid On It.” Instead of simply “Shut Up” Bryant elaborates this way – “…You sit around in your BVDs, guzzling beer/On and on ad nauseum, that’s all I hear/Put a lid on it.”
While there’s a bluesy quality to the first three tracks, Bryant digs even deeper in the middle of the album, first nodding to jump-blues style of McShann in “Blues to Get Started,” perhaps the finest exposition of her piano chops on the disc. She and Kyle, this time on harmonica, deliver a playful duet on Bryant’s original “Chicken Wings,” yet another peak at Bryant’s witty approach to songcraft, which delivers both in spoken word and lyrically. The two main conspirators then engage a stretched out “Stormy Monday,” taken at a slow simmering tempo with an invigorating call-and-response like dialogue in the middle section, each digging gutturally deep.
We mentioned quirky and it’s likely no one ever composed a song about the grasshopper creature, the katydid. Bryant was also fascinated by the word but didn’t write about the insect, instead revealing a story about what a certain Katy did. Guests Guerrero and Ooka join her. Bryant demonstrates an intriguing flair for Brazilian music in her arrangement of the standard “The Very Thought of You,” richly imbed by guitarist Jorge, electric bassist Jiffry and percussionist Winard with Kyle superbly lyrical in his solo. Bryant then closes in celebratory fashion in the tune from which the album takes its name “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” which features lovely tight unison passages with Kyle of flute and Guerrero on trumpet.
Remarkably, Bryant displays age defying light-hearted vitality, suggesting that she’s long from done. Retirement is not a word in her vocabulary just yet.
For more on Betty Bryant, you should check out our fellow staff writer, Dee Dee McNeil’s column on Bryant in the L.A. Jazz Scene. Visit https://lajazzscene.buzz/
- Jim Hynes
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