Beat

Rockers rant about social injustice, reggae stars call for world order, industrial acts urge anarchy, folk singers still peddle peace, too.

But jazz singer Sylvia Bennett operates in different surroundings, a place that doesn't invite torn jeans or dread locks, but does welcome diamond earrings and fine tuxedos. Upscale and genteel? Sure. Any less valid than the angry disenfranchised? Not really.

Bennett's gentle song styling still aches with passion, albeit a broad, soothing sort of passion. The lyrics are simple, the arrangements accessible, the whole package delivered to people who like things nice, not rough. And never has she been as sweet as on her new album, Rainbows in the Sky, the first of her work to comprise only original compositions. (Bennett shares writing credits with her producer, Hal Batt.)

Everything seems pretty copacetic in the world of the doctor's wife with the great pipes. Iconoclasm and irreverence have no business butting in here. So what? A beautiful voice set against quite-competent-thank-you backing is a good thing, and, further, it's not every singer in the world who gets hugged by George Bush without getting tied to his scandalous running of the free world.

Furthermore, Bennett did not consent to an interview with this subversive publication to hype her new album, or herself. She's pitching something that draws a contradiction all those tattooed screamers and angst-ridden puppies should strongly consider. Bennett's cause doesn't concern solving a problem that already exists. It pleads for prevention.

During the writing and recording of Rainbows in the Sky, Bennett spoke with an acquaintance named Kim Allison, of the National Society to Prevent Blindness. "She asked me to be a spokesperson," says Bennett. "I asked what I would be doing, and when she named the organization, I said, `How wonderful, I'll be working with the blind.' She said, `No! We're trying to prevent blindness.'"

The album was to be titled "Letting Our Feelings Go" (the name of a song on it), but after talking to Allison about NSPB's "image problems," "Rainbows in the Sky" was written as a theme song for the organization, the CD's lead track, and the title of the project. Rainbows is a smoky, sexy, easy-on-the-ears combination of standard pop-and-jazz meandering that gives her plenty of room to exercise that silky, elegant voice.

For years Bennett thought that voice belonged to pop songs. Her father sang around the house, and by age three she'd picked up the habit. By ten she was a pro. "I always wanted to sing," she remembers. "As a child in Philadelphia I watched The Children's Hour, and I always wanted to be on that show. Then I was on. I was ten years old, and I was caught by the bug." Early experience in the music biz taught her plenty: "It taught me to wait awhile before I went into it," she says. "I focused on an education and a career to fall back on. But I sang on the side while at school."

While at the University of Pittsburgh, she sang at a Hubert Humphrey rally and also once crooned on behalf of Lyndon Johnson. Ironically, years later she would sing at Ronald Reagan's inaugural balls - it was at the 1984 event that Vice President Bush was moved to wrap his arms around her - and for the Bush-Quayle bash upon their installment. "I'm nonpartisan," Bennett laughs.

Ten years ago Bennett cut her first album, but it wasn't until about 1983 that she discovered she was a jazz vocalist. She had met the great drummer-turned-vibraphonist Lionel Hampton at a social event, and a year later when she learned he was gigging on a cruise ship ported here, she went to visit him. A few months after that, when Hampton returned to the area for a concert, she auditioned for him. "He invited me to perform that night," she says. "It was a week-long gig, and he kept letting me sing more songs each night. Lionel discovered, or told me rather, that I was a jazz, not pop, singer."

Hampton took her on the road.
After performing together for a few years, they cut the album Sentimental Journey, nominated for a Grammy in 1987. "He likes the way I sing on the beat," she notes. "The man's a drummer, and that's what caught his interest."

Currently, Bennett has two projects - three, counting her extensive work with the Society to Prevent Blindness - that are about to go public. Before cutting Rainbows, she met Boots Randolph, the legendary saxophonist. Soon to be released: Here's that Rainy Day, a collection of standards featuring Boots Randolph and Sylvia Bennett.

The super singer has plenty to brag about, and by all rights her ego should be the size of the budget deficit. "What we're saying," she gloats, "is that you can help. You can help by coming to our concerts, by buying our gift packages. The slogan is spend $20 and help people to see 20/20. Why not call the Society's hotline at 271-8914 and help prevent blindness?"

By the way, Rainbows in the Sky will also be released in Spanish and French. There's no need for Bennett to sing phonetically. She speaks both those languages. That's what she studied in college - something to fall back on.

 
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