2008 British jazz Award winning singer Val Wiseman has been best known for the last two decades for her stylish performances of Billie Holiday songs in Lady Sings the Blues. On the surface her latest project could not be more different: Keeping the Flame Alive: The Brontė Legacy (BLCD 2009) consists of 16 songs, either settings of words by the Brontė family or, in most cases, Val's own lyrics, all set to music by Brian Dee.

A connection with Billie Holiday was the last thing on Val's mind when she began writing lyrics based on the Brontės' life or incidents in their novels. She is a lifelong devotee of the Brontės and, as the Brontė Society's representative in London and the South East, is used to organising visits to any place with even the slightest connection with the family:

'I feel as strongly about them as I do about Billie Holiday. I've loved their work, I've loved performing in jazz most of my adult life, but I've wanted in some way to turn my musical interests towards the Brontės. Reading their books, reading about them, watching adaptations on film have all given me so much pleasure and I thought, "How can I present this in a musical way?'"

To her surprise, having never written her own material, the words flowed easily and, as the project developed, Val became aware that there was a connection between the 19th century parson's family and the Baltimore-born daughter of an itinerant jazz guitarist, if only in the qualities that attracted Val to them:

'When I think about it, there is an artistic and emotional connection. Both were very outspoken about how oppressed they felt in their time. Billie was oppressed and discriminated against because of her colour and she spoke out against it. The Brontės were discriminated against because they were female, trying to get published in a male-dominated world. The more I thought about it the more I felt the connection. In the end, despite their celebrity and success, all their lives were tragically cut short. The Brontės lived in genteel poverty as compared to Billie's absolute poverty, but they had to fight equally hard to achieve success.'

Val is at pains to point out that, though she began by seeing this as a jazz project, Keeping the Flame Alive is not a jazz album and - in general terms she's quite correct. The settings are more in keeping with show tunes and many of the lyrics pursue themes beloved of musical theatre: love, friendship, identity, independence. However, with Val at her most accomplished and Brian Dee creating accompaniments of surprising depth for two keyboards (John Hamilton the other), there is much for the jazz lover to enjoy. Wisely there is no artificial Victorianising of the words: every time there is an outbreak of 'thees' and 'thous', it turns out to be an original lyric by Branwell or Anne. It's interesting to speculate how far the songs could exist outside of the Bronte context - one of the best and jazziest, Blanche (with a hint of the late Blossom Dearie) ends with a moment of spoken drama in the character of Jane Eyre - but Val is adamant that they must 'stand on their own' and I think a sizeable proportion can do just that.

Val sees the project as musical theatre and hopes it will go much further in terms of theatrical and educational developments. For the moment the stage version (the songs plus Val's linking commentary on the Brontės' lives and works) is scheduled to open a Brontė Festival at Dewsbury Minster on September 25 and Val and Brian are hoping to attract the attention of arts centres and literary festivals, with the possibility, at some time in the future, of building the song cycle into a full-blown musical play.

To order Keeping the Flame Alive and find details of the Bronte Legacy project, visit www.brontelegacy.com
                                                                    RON SIMPSON - The Jazz Rag

Dewsbury Minster Friday 25th September 2009
The singing, as might be expected from the Best British Jazz Vocalist 2008, was superb - dramatic and presented with a beautiful flourish. Regretfully, I did not get to see the tribute stage show 'Lady Sings the Blues', in which she portrayed Billie Holiday - but I am certain that the acclaim she received was very well deserved, because she oozes presence. The music composed by the illustrious Brian Dee was excellent, too.
He was on one of the two keyboards alongside bass and drums.
It was a wonderful climax for Dewsbury's commemoration of the arrival of Patrick Brontė two hundred years ago. It should be experienced elsewhere.

RICHARD WILCOCKS - Review from Dewsbury Brontė Festival 2009



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