When Judith Owen was aged six, she found some rare jazz and blues singles in her parents’ record collection, including songs by ‘unapologetic’ artists like Nellie Lutcher, Julia Lee and Blossom Dearie; strong, accomplished and incredibly witty women at the piano.
“In-between the classical 33s was a tiny, child-like collection of 45s – they were my dad’s from when he was a kid. He collected them in the ‘50s,” she tells hi-fi+, speaking to us over Zoom from L.A.
“There was Jelly Roll Morton, and Oscar Peterson, as well as all the greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, but, more importantly, there were songs that were race records in America, but they had been hits in Britain, like Nellie Lutcher’s ‘Fine Brown Frame.’
“Nellie Lutcher, who was from Louisiana, played at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London and she was mobbed afterwards by the audience – she had to have a police escort. But when she went back to the States, she had to go through the kitchen and play a mile down the road,” explains Owen.
“As a child, I heard her, Julia Lee, Pearl Bailey and Blossom Dearie – wonderful women who were gamechangers. They weren’t being decorative lovelies – they were singular, one of a kind and they played by their rules, but it meant they were marginalised and unheard. They were profound and accomplished musicians – when I heard them sing, I was like, ‘What is this?’
“My sister and I used to sing ‘Fine Brown Frame’ around the house – we didn’t know what the hell it meant, and we laugh about it now, but it was so joyful and infectious. It was an earworm. I thought these women were stars – my dad had their records, so how could they not be? But in America their songs were only released for black audiences.”
Now, British vocalist, pianist and singer Owen has recorded some of those jazz and blues songs for her latest album, Come On & Get It, which she made in New Orleans with musical director, David Torkansowsky (Dianne Reeves, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Danny Barker), and a bunch of great jazz musicians who’ve played with the likes of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Aretha Franklin, Art Blakey and Wynton Marsalis.
SH: The new album is a departure for you musically, isn’t it?
JO: It’s what I grew up listening to – it affected me and it’s authentic. People don’t expect me to be doing this. When I did a show in Paris, the resounding reaction was that I was being an entertainer – I come out from behind the piano, and I can be that larger-than-life person. When I stand up and perform, I’m such a different creature.
When I saw you play a showcase gig at the Nightjar in London, you looked like you were enjoying yourself…
I had such fun. This isn’t dark, moody and meaningful jazz – you don’t have to be a big jazz fan to get what I’m doing. These songs were the pop songs of their era – they are short and to the point, funny as f*** and spilling over with double entendres.
And that’s just the titles, like ‘Snatch & Grab It’ and ‘Big Long Slidin’ Thing…’
Oh my God – I just love this s***! The words are fabulously outrageous. And I think it’s important to commit to the entirety of it, which means the visuals and the vibe. It’s good to be authentic, otherwise what you’re looking at is a museum piece and that’s not what this is. It had to be made in New Orleans – and that’s why. I know I couldn’t have made this record anywhere else.
The music that lives in New Orleans is so broad but when it comes to jazz and that greasiness – it’s not polite or safe, it’s greasy – that’s inherently in the culture. It comes from Storyville and burlesque. Jazz is sexy – it came from brothels. If you’re going to be clean about it, you’re missing the point.
The Great American Songbook is romance, but jazz and blues are sex. Romance was white and sex was black – that’s always been the problem and that’s the truth.
Jazz is a living artform in New Orleans – it’s not a museum piece. It’s real down there.
We recorded the album in Esplanade Studios in New Orleans – it’s an extraordinary building. It was recorded old school – I was stood in-front of the microphone with the band behind and around me.
You worked with your long-term collaborator producer, John Fischbach (Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key of Life) on this record, didn’t you?
Yes – Stevie Wonder has been so influential in my life and John recorded Songs In The Key of Life. He’s been my collaborator for all these years, and he was surprised by me doing this – but if you love music and food, you always end up in New Orleans.
John is that person who records musicians so, when you put the record on, or listen to it digitally, it sounds like you’re in the room with them – like they’re sitting right in-front of you. That’s what he did with Stevie – you’re submerged in the experience.
John and I, and the engineer, are all big two-track people – we record on Pro Tools but put it straight back through the analogue tubes to give it that warmth that you must have.
We started the album in October  – because of COVID it was tricky to get it together – but we went back in December and we did overdubs and extra big band stuff in January  then we mixed it. We didn’t want to do weird stuff to it – we just wanted it to live and breathe and to be thrilling. Don’t use modern day methods on this stuff – it doesn’t need it. It’s a very timeless record. I wish my dad was still alive to hear it – he loved this music so much and he’s the reason I love it.
The album is coming out on vinyl. You’re a big vinyl fan, aren’t you?
My dad had a vinyl collection – we’ve always been big collectors. I’ve always had a quality turntable that could play 78s, 33s and 45s. I find it sexy – I’m a fan and there’s something so great about it.
The deluxe vinyl version is going to be so thrilling – it will have extra live tracks and the artwork will knock your eyes out.
Have some of the female performers whose songs you’ve covered on the album been forgotten about?
You’re on the nose – they were unsung even at the time. They were pioneers and, let’s be honest, they were flourishing in a man’s world. Jazz has always been a man’s world, but they wanted to be the leaders.
They were also showing joy, fun and absolute enjoyment of their own sexuality and of the act of sex, with such humour. The audience is in on the joke and they’re all having fun with it – it’s a celebration of human and female sexuality. Everyone’s enjoying it and feeling good.
I can’t bear that these women are unknown. They opened the door for any woman who has ever been a ballbreaker – an unapologetic bad-ass.
I chose to return to these women that made me smile when I was a kid and who’ve stayed with me my whole life because during COVID I was so flipping depressed and fed up, even though I was doing lots of music, so, I did this rather than doing another introspective and deep and meaningful record. I wanted joy and fun and I wanted to light up the room and do something I hadn’t done before.
I’ve been learning to be unapologetic about this and about who I am. It takes so much courage – the whole thing is an exercise in confidence.
It has such broad appeal, but so many young women are reacting to it in such a positive way, in the same way that I reacted when I first heard these women singing.
When I performed the album live for the first time, in New Orleans, I had so many amazing young women say to me, ‘I want to be you when I grow up’. My answer was, ‘So do I’.
In America, women’s sexual rights are being denied yet again and women are being shamed about the idea of having any sexual pleasure or desire. That’s astonishing to me – we’re being pushed back to the ‘50s.
Come & Get It is out now on CD and digital (Twanky Records). A vinyl version is also available.