Singer Cleo Laine speaks as she sings--her voice is deep, melodious, husky and honeyed. It's one that's retained its resonance and power through forty-plus years of performing. A fog-like quality creeps through her tone and adds a theatrical touch to her songs. "I make [each song] into a little play, as if I were acting it out," she quietly explains in a rolling British accent during a recent phone interview. "I visualize a known experience or act one--truthfully, an experience in general. I've had near failures and emotional experiences, and I pull from those. Whatever you've lived comes into your song."
She must be doing something right. Grammy nominations abound for Laine, the only singer to receive honors in the female Popular, Classical, and Jazz categories. And she is equally at home on the stage on both sides of the Atlantic. Most recently, she has been seen in Broadway's The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, in which she embodied her witch character with fervent relish and bite. She and husband John Dankworth, himself a conductor and composer, also recently appeared together at the Hollywood Bowl, performing "twentieth-century favorites for 14,000 people," she says.
Laine's latest project, Woman to Woman, includes tunes solely composed by women, including one by the singer herself. The songs stretch from standards to ballads to upbeat compositions and encompass their own history. They include "I'll Never Smile Again," the classic that Frank Sinatra popularized; the gentle swing of "Willow Weep for Me"; and modern works by Joni Mitchell, Melissa Manchester, and Judy Collins.
Laine discards the notion that her interpretations differ from those on previous albums, where she's treated material regardless of the composers' gender. "Great standards are great standards, no matter who wrote them," she argues. "But it is true that women have been ignored. In fact," she says with a rueful laugh, "women have already proven themselves, and men are still trying to prove themselves! But again, as long as you have a good song, it doesn't matter who the composer is."
Laine treats the wealth of material she's written and covered with an equally diverse vocal range, which travels from baritone depths to screechy heights. Husband Dankworth arranges the songs to complement her voice in lush, brass-string settings. Their works-
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in-progress include an album of Charles Ives songs, Bertolt Brecht's Seven Deadly Sins, and an album of Christmas songs. And when it's suggested that Laine's voice might be enhanced with the a cappella harmonies of a South African choir, Laine, amused, replies dryly, "Perhaps this has given me my setting for the Christmas album."
But world music does play a part in the couple's life at their home in England, where the Wavedon Allmusic Plan attracts students worldwide to participate in its seminar series. With Dankworth hard at work as a film scorer and as the London Symphony Orchestra's Pops conductor, and Laine appearing on Broadway and constantly traveling, they aren't able to spend as much time together as they would like. Hence, the duo eagerly anticipates festivals like Jazz on the Rocks, at which they will perform Saturday.
And after this appearance? "I'm researching the music of Harry Wallen. He wrote 42nd St., you know, but no one gives him credit for it--they credit David Merrick," Laine says. "And, I'd like to do a collection of all the Top 10 composers--Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter."
All of them ageless and timeless--much like Laine herself.