Judith Owen is a British vocalist, pianist, and songwriter. She has had a lengthy career and received praise from fellow musicians including Annie Lennox and Jamie Cullum.
‘Come On & Get It’ is Owen’s thirteenth album and features tracks by strong, hugely talented female jazz musicians from the 40s and 50s including Nellie Lutcher and Julia Lee. Owen says, “Hearing these women as a kid, I thought they were fun, ballsy, sexy, and powerful. They were playing the piano and kicking arse. It was all so impressive to a little girl who was mad about music and piano. It was like, ‘Oh, this is how you can be!’.”
I asked Owen how she decided on numbers to include on the album, and she told me, “These are all songs from my father’s record collection. I started hearing them at age 6, and the first was Nellie Lutcher’s ‘Fine Brown Frame’. It had the most incredible effect on me.
I heard this powerful, funny, unapologetic nonconformist at the piano, and I knew I wanted to be like that. Next was Pearl Bailey then Julia Lee, Blossom Dearie, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, and Julie London, so it was selecting the songs. They weren’t chosen as a random collection but as an authentic reflection of my life, my happiest memories, and my introduction to the first female musical role models!”
As Owen grew, she learned she had been listening to race records, sold by huge commercial conglomerates in the recording industry to one part of the population. Recorded at a time before civil rights movements took off and segregation was still in force, these artists’ reach was limited. It was only later that people like John Hammond would seek out recordings from Harlem and the New Orleans area and bring them to the attention of a wider world but by that time, many of these musicians Owen heard, had missed their opportunities unless they could travel and perform outside America.
When I asked Owen why she chose songs by these women in particular, she said, “As I said, all these women were a part of my childhood. I like to tell people that this is a story about a group of women who changed my life twice! Apart from Peggy Lee, they didn’t get their dues as artists, and a lot of that was because they didn’t play by the rules!
They were ‘one of a kind’ and, in the case of Blossom – are remembered as jazz cult figures, if at all. I and many artists like me owe these ladies a debt of gratitude. I want to share their stories and their music, and I want to continue their legacy as female role models and delicious ‘bottles of joy’.”
It seems appropriate that New Orleans – NOLA- was where ‘Come On & Get It’ came together. It was recorded at Esplanade Studios in New Orleans (where else could you hear such greasy joy that speaks of Storyville and Burlesque?), and features a stellar cast of musicians, many of whom have played in Preservation Hall and other venues.
Owen explained how she chose the musicians for the recording. “That was very easy, living in New Orleans as I do. My musical Director-David Torkanowsky and I have been friends for a long time. I’m a huge fan of him as an exquisite jazz pianist and MD. He’s been a great fan of mine as a singer/songwriter/performer, so when I decided during Covid that I wanted my next record to be an antidote to the sadness, fear, and depression that we’d all been feeling, he was the first person I turned to, knowing I needed to revisit the women and the music that instilled me with hope, joy, and celebration when I was a kid.
Of course, New Orleans is the perfect place to record an album about celebration because that’s truly what the city is all about. David reached out to the musicians he felt certain understood and embodied that unique mix of history, joy, and “grease”- the loose, lazy, sexy sound that mirrors the tropical humidity of the Big Easy.
I swear this album couldn’t have been recorded anywhere else, but it’s not stuck in the past. I know my interpretation of these songs and my singular singing style breathes new life into the music and proves these songs are timeless, and just as relevant some 70 years later!
It was the first time Torkanowsky, and I worked together, but I’m happy to say that my long-time drummer/percussionist, Pedro Segundo, an absolute jazz monster, joined me on this.
It was thrilling to finally work with some of the musicians I’ve admired over the years. Kevin Louis on trumpet, Ricardo Pascal on sax, Jason Marsalis on vibes, legendary sax players Charlie Gabriel and Donald Harrison Junior, bassist Lex Warshawsky, and some of Nola’s finest horn players for the big band songs. They’ve become my ever-expanding band, The Gentlemen Callers.”
Owen has taken the album out in live shows that present an immersive experience.
She brings passion and emotion to her delivery – maybe because she knows the emotions of the soul since experiencing the loss of her mother to suicide in her early teens, and having her own battle with anxiety-based depression. After time spent mending, Owen is now ready to face the world again – and how! With her rich voice, superb vocal control, and powerful delivery, Owen presents these songs to listeners afresh, respectful to the originals yet with added touches that feel like they come from somewhere deep within Owen’s persona.
From the gorgeous swing bluesy opener ‘Blossom’s Blues’ to the fun, uplifting ‘Satchel Mouth Baby’ – a reference to Louis Armstrong’s nickname due to his wide, strong mouth, it tells of a cute guy with a satchel mouth – funny, light, and delivered pure. The solos from sax and trumpet on the album provide gorgeous interludes.
The album is out on the London label Twanky Records and there is a deluxe vinyl version featuring 5 additional tracks.
Already performances have included Snug Harbor in Nola, the Nice Jazz Festival, and the Ascona Jazz Cat Club in Switzerland, and the bookings and tour continue.
In every track, the nuances of the blues and jazz singers of the past, added to by Owen’s individual take, are invoked. The sassy, provocative women of the past who have been forgotten work their way into the ears and heart of the listener – affording them their due place in music’s rich history that had been denied them. Owen is the perfect conduit for these powerful women because her delivery is never the same, the interpretation of each song has its own atmosphere, presentation, and delivery, whether that is as a she-devil, provocateur, or lover. As an example, if you think you know Burke/Lee’s ‘He’s A Tramp’, listen to Owen’s version and hear a different interpretation.
Owen sums up the message of the album as, “A celebration of the unapologetic, uncompromising, and often unsung ladies of 40’s/50’s jazz and blues”
I asked Owen whether she had found it different as a woman in music. She replied, “Absolutely! I knew it from the start. Luckily, my father, who was a very successful opera singer, instilled in me the importance of leading with your talent and your intelligence first and your looks second.
I’ve had more than my share of, “let your beauty do the talking and just be quiet and mysterious at the piano.” (Seriously I’m an animated big mouth who wears men’s suits!)
Women in the business have always been made to rely predominately on their looks and have fought to be taken seriously as musicians, but that worked in our favour because it’s made us such fabulous achievers. I mean look who’s on top in the music biz right now- Beyoncé and Taylor. Brava ladies!
It’s always a fight to smash the glass ceiling, to be brave and bold and not be called a bitch, but if you think it’s bad now you can’t imagine what it was like back in the 40s and 50s when women truly were decoration, and nice girls sang about romance NOT about sex. That’s why I love these women. They were celebrating female sexuality with humour, elegance, poise, and talent. They were succeeding in a predominantly male environment– the jazz world, and were admired by the likes of Bill Evans, Miles, Dizzy, Charlie Parker, and Nat King Cole.”
With over 1 million streams since the album’s release in May 2023 and more than 600,000 video views, it is no wonder the album is heralded as a success. It has continuing support from the UK’s Jazz FM, BBC R2/Jamie Cullum, and BBC Wales as well as TSF Jazz in France, and continued play in Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, and Spain.
Owen encapsulates everything you might expect from a top rung all-round jazz and blues artist, from her sassy delivery on ‘Come and Get It’ where she proves she can scat with the best, to her salutary storytelling on ‘Snatch and Grab It’ or her wonderfully laid back delivery of the saucy ‘Long John Blues’ on which she is backed superbly by the band, whose introduction lasts over a minute and features several solos.
I asked Owen to try and fast-forward five years. Where would she like to be and what would she like to have achieved? She said, “I really think this album has captured the imagination of my audience and I’m over the moon, so I’ll be continuing in a jazz vein, but I’ll definitely be incorporating more of my writing and myself at the piano with the Gentlemen Callers, which I’m very excited about
I want to put this on stage as a live, theatrical one-woman show. I’ve been compared to Bette Midler (great praise indeed), and that’s really who I am. A hi-octane entertainer and I really do live to perform. Then there’s a project up ahead about some extraordinary and very different women in a very different field, for whom I’ve written a classical theatrical stage show. That’s really who I am– part classical, part jazz and blues, and it all feels natural to me right now.
These women inspired me to be and do everything I could be. To be fearless, unapologetic, and unconventional. It’s been such a gift to wake up to that.
Right now, my greatest wish is to be my most authentic self and do everything I can. Isn’t that what we all want?”
Owen’s husband is Harry Shearer a well-known star in his own right and owner of the Twanky label. I couldn’t help but be curious about how it felt to work so closely, so I asked Owen what it was like. She said, “Well, we’re definitely each other’s biggest fans and trusted collaborators. We work individually on our various projects, but we discuss every aspect of what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, our plans, and how it looks and sounds. It’s an extraordinary relationship that we have and very rare in this business when your partner is your ally and best friend.
It’s incredible to have found the one thing I never thought I would find (as a ‘driven’ woman in the business). A man who not only adored me for everything that I was but who encouraged me to be as big and bold and fearless, brave, and unapologetic as I possibly could be! He’s so proud right now, and I’m very grateful to have this wonderful partner in life.”
And so he should be. ‘Come On & Get It’ is a joyful listen and one that captures the essence of what good jazz and blues music sounds and feels like.
Buy links here Come On & Get It – Super Deluxe Edition (ffm.to)