As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, we’re partnering with The House of St Barnabas for 50 days of listening experiences.
Bowers & Wilkins flagship 800 D3 loudspeakers have been installed in the Monro Room at the heart of the club, creating one of the most intimate and acoustically advanced listening environments in central London.
We’ve invited five influential, innovative guests each to create a special listening event and Q&A around a chosen album from our list of 50 great albums. In the last of this series, the charismatic, classically-trained singer-songwriter, Laura Mvula, introduces Miles Davis’ peerless album, Kind of Blue.
Mvula’s recent, second album, The Dreaming Room, moves her orchestrated pop to a higher level. An artistic reflection on recent emotional upheaval, the album is a deeply personal, cathartic piece of work. An idiosyncratic writer, like Davis, Laura is both forward-thinking and timeless.
Compère for the evening, Jane Cornwell, Evening Standard jazz critic and author, asks Laura when she first heard the album:
“I was about 17 or 18, just got my first CD player and had bought The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. My cousin, she was sort of like an adopted sister, I think she felt responsible for my listening, and one day she bought me Kind of Blue from Tesco. At the time, I don’t think it was obvious to anyone that I had an interest in jazz, and if I did, I think it was just to try and gain acceptance from my father. I knew I wouldn’t get around to [listening to] it for a while, it literally has stayed with me since the day I did.”
Recorded in CBS 30th Street Studio, a converted church with 100ft-high vaulted ceilings, Kind of Blue is, without doubt, a spiritual recording. Jane puts the album into context, calling it a “phenomenal blast of progressive music” given that the charts in 1959 were full of Bobby Darin and Frankie Avalon.
Davis’s recording mirrored the isolation and loneliness of the African-American experience at the time, and Jane asks Laura how important the black experience is to her:
“The more I read and learn and open my eyes and ears, I’ve become so much more aware of what I’m doing musically. It’s a dangerous and fragile time and as a black woman, it’s heavy.
“I was always raised to be conscious of the fact that being black might mean that things could be harder. But I see things through different lenses now. I feel thankful that I have music as a tool. And such a basic tool as well. Music is so powerful, it seems to me the audiences I attract are listeners. So yep, I’ve tried more recently to say things on a really basic level… we are beautiful, we are powerful, anything that’s positive and healing. It’s such a comfort.”
Nina Simone is a big inspiration. Both women have undeniable charisma and musical virtuosity but politics are clearly playing a bigger role in Laura’s work too, now. She elaborates:
“Nina has always been a role model, but now even more so. She said in an interview around the time of Young, Gifted and Black: ‘I purposely tried to write songs that were anthemic and powerful for my people.’
“And I thought, wow, that was in the 1950s and 1960s. If she or James Baldwin were to look around today, a lot of things they were commenting on are still rampant. I thought, let me not sleep.”
Jane asks: “So does an artist have a responsibility to reflect society?”
“Now? Honestly? Fully responsible. Before, I was ignorant, now I realise. I get a lot of young people from all walks of life who say how much my music means to them. I really don’t take that lightly anymore.”
“Let’s listen to a bit more Miles in context of this framework.”, Jane says, as the third track, Blue in Green, is queued up.
Eska was the one who said to me, at 21, ‘I’m really tired of hearing you moaning about being stuck in Birmingham and not having any direction as an artist. If you really want to do this, just do it.’
Nine years later, Laura released Overcome, the single from The Dreaming Room and an inspired collaboration with Nile Rodgers:
“We met at the 2014 Brit Awards on the red carpet, and he was flirting with me. He pretended he knew who I was but later on he was googling me under the table! A year on he phoned me and said he wanted to collaborate. Eventually we met and he said, ‘what’s the biggest song on the album?’ At that point it was Overcome… I’m going to be really honest with you… I thought, ‘I don’t really hear Nile on this’. [Miles Davis collaborator] John Schofield had already been into the studio, done his thing, killed it dead, I thought it was a number one!
“So, when everyone got excited about Nile, I was excited, because it was him, but musically I didn’t know what could he bring to it. But, he is the master of collaboration. He was ‘listen, I’m going to be so sensitive to what’s there, I only want to enhance what’s there. I’m just going to bring an element of funk.”
The resulting track features a more subdued, nervy, though still wholly recognizable, Nile Rodgers, and, lyrically, offers a powerful personal message of hope: “Take your broken wings and fly”.
Flamenco Sketches is the last track of the evening:
“My favourite. It makes me feel as though, when you think you have gotten as high as you can go, you’re taken somewhere else. I think if you were going to make love to a song on the album, it would be this one.”
“Cue the music!” says Jane, laughing.
As the track finishes, Laura opens her eyes:
“When it comes to this record, from beginning to end, it never feels like the wrong time to listen to it.”
800 D3 speakers
Turntable – Rega RP8
Amp – Classe 2300
Pre-Amp – Classe CP800