The last time I heard singer and pianist Judith Owen at Manhattan’s Iridium club, she was celebrating the release of her new CD, “Somebody’s Child” (Twanky Records).
She’ll take a detour from tour opening for Bryan Ferry (who apparently endorses her version of his “More Than This”) to return to Iridium on March 31.
At that last gig, before playing the new album’s title track (see the above clip), she explained its backstory:
I was in New York, in the middle of winter, and I saw this beautiful young woman, about nine months pregnant, barefoot in the snow, wearing a trash bag, that was all she had, stomach out and in a state. I was crossing the street, with everybody else, trying to avoid her, when I thought, “That’s somebody’s child, and if my life had been different, that could have been me. Or any of us!” We’re all so dehumanized, and this whole record is about reconnecting with our humanity, really seeing what’s around us, discarding, even if it is just for a moment, our constant state of denial.
In lesser hands—Owen plays piano with sensitivity and hipness—and lesser voice—hers moves from breathy to declarative without guile—this sort of thing might grow cloying or preachy.
But when Owen sang of a “girl on the street in a trashbag dress/baby in her belly” she sounded simply honest, reflective. It felt like unabashed gratitude.
On the new album, Owen’s adaption of “Aquarius,” from the musical “Hair,” which I love, could easily have leaned toward irony or sarcasm. It doesn’t resolve into “Let the Sunshine In,” nor does it attempt to draw meaning from or mock the nonsensical lyrics.
It simply grooves.
Owen called her new album a team effort. On “That’s Why I Love My Baby,” her husband, Harry Shearer, plays the upright bass. (He likely wasn’t wearing the wig and foil-wrapped courgette of his bass-playing days as Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls, but one never knows.)
Those familiar with the odd blend of bright wit and hard truths Shearer brings to his weekly syndicated radio program “Le Show,” will find a roughly similar combination in Owens sometimes deadpan, sometimes deadly funny between-songs banter. I’ve begun to think of them as the best husband-and-wife comedy team that doesn’t work together.
I recall when they co-hosted an annual Christmas benefit, Shearer had described Owen as “a Welsh woman prone to melancholia who could not stand the fact that, at Christmastime, Southern California was about 78 degrees and sunny.” She confessed the truth in all that. “In a strange way,” she said, “bad weather means Christmas to me.”
As for Owen’s musical team, it’s just sort of an unfair-advantage situation in the way that the Golden State Warriors hold too many aces: the band on the new album includes bassist Leland Sklar, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Russell Kunkel. (American listeners unfamiliar with those names need immediately check the liner note to their old LPs.)
Sklar, in particular, who will perform at Iridium, is a true master; he is to a particular stripe of folk/rock/pop what Ron Carter is to modern jazz.
Sklar’s strong, supple, wise, modest and dancing approach to electric bass is well showcased on Owen’s “Arianne,” which is, to me, the showstopper on the new CD, and a good example of Owens skills as lyricist, songwriter and musician: She blends personal and political, digs into a rhythm that owes to no one genre, and sings in a confessional manner that will never go out of style.