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Album Review – Christine Tobin: Sailing to Byzantium

29 Jul

So Far Away: not Yeats but Carole King, from Christine Tobin’s previous album Tapestry Unravelled

Sailing to Byzantium: Christine Tobin rescues Yeats from memories of academic overload

The rich source material for Christine Tobin’s latest album positively encourages metaphor, so here goes. Sailing to Byzantium is a vibrant, irresistible lake. There’s nothing to be gained from standing suspiciously on its shore.  Take a deep breath, plunge in, and let the water draw you down into a musical world of burnished colours, intriguing shades, spine-chilling dangers and soothing sub-aquatic glades.

Tobin’s audacity in setting 13 of W. B. Yeats’s poems to fluid and spacious jazz arrangements pays off on every level.  The poet’s characteristic themes of memory, time and place, unattainable love, the artist’s lot, and mythology shine through, heightened but never unnecessarily embellished by some brilliant ensemble playing.

Tobin isn’t the first composer to set Yeats to music. Herbert Hughes, for example, wrote a rollicking tune for “Down by the Sally Gardens”, most recently recorded by Clare Teal for her album, Hey Ho. But Sailing to Byzantium is on a much more ambitious scale. And how Tobin pulls it off.

It would be invidious to single out any band member; plaudits to Liam Noble (piano), Phil Robson (guitar), Gareth Lockrane (flute), Kate Shortt (cello) and Dave Whitford (double bass). With their support, Tobin’s warm timbre wraps itself around the shimmering imagery of Yeats’s verse, taking it into a new and very different space while staying true to the original work.

Like Tobin, I studied Yeats at school, and was so absorbed by the texture and subjects of his poetry that I later seized the opportunity to immerse myself in it at university. Analytical overload was inevitable and it’s been many years since I revisited the glories of poems such as “Long-legged Fly” and “The Wild Swans at Coole”. Tobin’s inspired handling of the material has sent me scurrying to the bookshelf and reaching out for a familiar, yellowing volume as if it was an old friend.

From the sparkling Joni Mitchell-ish  guitar intro to the opening track, “When You are Old” to the elegiac tones of actor Gabriel Byrne (who taught at Tobin at school in Dublin) reading “The White Birds” to the backdrop of rising waves and Tobin’s wordless, keening chant, Sailing to Byzantium commands attention. The production is fresh and crisp.

There is turbulent beauty, not least in the cacophonous climax to “The Second Coming”. Characters spring to life, greatly assisted by the sparkling arrangements. “The Song of Wondering Aengus” and “The Fisherman” – that paean to a simple, idealised reader – bristle with energy. Some of the songs are haunted and haunting in equal measure:  ghosts gather and whisper as “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markievicz” conjures a room populated by lost friends, to exquisitely poignant effect, building to the sinister revelation of knowledge that’s come too late. An artistic triumph, brimming with integrity.

Album review – Macy Chen: After 75 Years

28 Jul

Languishing Love: Macy Chen’s JazAsia quest pays dividends

 

After 75 Years: Macy Chen’s contribution to the East/West cultural exchange

Macy Chen is living proof that jazz is the most international of musical languages. The Taiwan-born singer soon established herself on the pop scene in her home country after graduating from Soochow University. But having realised that her heart was really in jazz, she headed west to New York in search of new influences that would help her to build on this passion.

A decade later, Chen has released a concept album – After 75 Years – that fuses Chinese and Western jazz traditions in a style she has dubbed ‘jazAsia’. It’s a canny modern take on a phenomenon that actually has its roots in the 1930s. As Chen reveals through a selection of songs from old Shanghai, jazz was a highly popular style of music in the more cosmopolitan cities of pre-Communist China; something that possibly escaped her grandfather, a saxophonist who also left Taiwan to pursue a career as a musician but stayed firmly in the Eastern hemisphere, in Japan.

The album is packaged as an imagined correspondence bridging the 75-year gap between these two wondering spirits (they never knew each other), with a sheaf of letters and photographs for the listener to browse while Chen’s mellow and expressive voice works a rather special spell.

The Shanghai numbers are fascinating in themselves, telling exotic tales of “Unrequited Love” and “The Wandering Mistress” in mandarin. Rather than being an obstacle to the non-speaker, the language becomes an intrinsic element of the music as Chen’s voice blends like an instrument with the rest of her nimble, sophisticated band.

She has also written mandarin lyrics for a handful of American jazz standards – “My Only Love” and a mash-up of “Harlem Fantasia” and the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” – which add an exciting new texture to these familiar tunes.  She is at her most effective in languid, melancholy musical territory: “Reminisce” and “Suzhou Nocturne” both showcase a range that swoops effortlessly across the soprano/alto divide with a blend of sweet, instinctive jazz inflections.

Chen rounds things off with a pair of self-penned songs, “Fly Away” and “Good Night, My Love”, that experiment with tempo and elegant melodic lines, suggesting that her unusual quest is set to pay further dividends as her career develops. JazAsia is full of idiosyncratic possibilities.

Album Review – Gill Manly: The Lies of Handsome Men

7 Jul

Wild is the Wind: Manly’s sublime phrasing bathes you in warmth

The Lies of Handsome Men: world-weary, self-knowing and great singing

If you get the chance to catch Gill Manly singing live, seize it. Even in a London jazz scene crammed with secret treasures, her sublime phrasing, a voice which bathes you in warmth even when the lyrics tell a bitter tale, and her connoisseur’s ear for songs that chime with the musicality which she wears with grace and insouciance, set her apart as a singular talent. The world would be a better place if she were heard more widely – and if there’s any justice, her new album, The Lies of Handsome Men, will bring her the attention she deserves as one of Britain’s finest female singers of any genre.

It’s a carefully selected set of songs that she likens to jewels from her personal treasure trove, put by until the time was right to put her interpretations on the record. Generous, too, at 15 tracks.

Many better-known singers would be hard-pressed to sustain unbroken interest through such an eclectic mix of standards and pop songs. However, Manly has a gift for threading lyrical themes and ideas together with a vocal line that ranges from girlish delight (shades of Blossom Dearie) to arch-vamp (recalling Julie Wilson) but is at its most telling with world-weary, self-knowing material that hints at the emotional texture of a woman’s life, lived fully. Buddy Greco guests on “Second Time Around”, but it’s a measure of the album’s quality that his stardust is a pleasantly incidental contribution rather than the high point of the record.

Despite the occasional tone-lightening favourite (“Peel Me A Grape” and “Witchcraft”), The Lies of Handsome Men sets a contemplative mood from the moment the title track edges into earshot. In that respect, it reminded me very much of a great but little-remembered Judy Holliday album, Trouble is a Man: serious, complex, sophisticated and intelligent readings of heart-breaking songs.

“The Lies of Handsome Men” sets the bar high, but with the glories of the Dudley Moore/Fran Landesman at-least-we-had-a-go classic “Before Love Went out of Style”, the John Scott/Caryl Brahms soliloquy “Woman Talk” and the quietly devastating Rod McKuen testament to survival, “A Single Woman” to follow, the quality never dips. “How Insensitive” is a case study in narrative interpretation, and “Wild is the Wind” a glorious tribute to one of Manly’s main influences, Nina Simone.

Manly’s pianist, Simon Wallace, who also produced the album, must share the credit for this. To make “Mad World” rub shoulders with the damped-down histrionics of “Windmills of Your Mind”, the cynicism of “Charade” and the frustrated longing of a little-heard Goffin/King number, “Go Away Little Boy”, without a single jarring moment is a considerable achievement.

This is a cohesive and coherent piece of work full of endless lessons for any receptive singer – and indeed for the rest of us, picking our way through the emotional minefield of human experience and trying to make sense of it without letting bitterness take hold. When Manly signs off with “Not Like This”, salvaging truth and dignity from the ashes of a love affair, the affirmation is left hanging in the air between the artist and the listener. That’s great singing. Highly recommended.

Album Review: Livia Devereux – Night Winds Whisper

24 Dec

Devereux sings “You’ve Changed” at the Metropolitan Room: no victim, she

Night Winds Whisper: Livia Devereux on audacious form

Fascinating beats and rhythms underscore Livia Devereux’s audacious perspective on some mighty standards on her album, Night Winds Whisper. And she pulls it off with verve and the backing of a band that is as tight as a drum. The leitmotif is jazz but here is a singer who is quite happy to stray across the boundaries into pop and blues; nothing seems to hold any fear for her.

From the opening track – an up tempo, on-the-nail version of “Walkin’ After Midnight”, which takes the song a million miles from Patsy Cline’s definitive and ominous vibrato-laden country classic and turns it into a defiant challenge – to a whipped-up “Come Rain or Come Shine”,  Devereux displays an unnerving command of a rich range of material. And with that nerve comes an assurance that many singers at the peak of their game would envy.

I can’t remember hearing another version of the great, urgent Bernsten/Sondheim ballad “Tonight” that threw away the rule book with such style and transformed it into a swinging celebration of romance and anticipation.

Devereux hits the mark on each of these taught, sharply arranged tracks with similar accuracy. And just when she’s turned your expectations on their head, she dims the spot and fires up the torch, assisted on several numbers by Jisoo Ok on the cello, who adds real depth to songs such as “Welcome to My Love” and “Never Let Me Go”.

“I Don’t Hurt Anymore” becomes a thrilling anthem of survival, although there are so many layers at work in Devereux’s interpretation that the ifs and maybes ripple beneath the waves, always threatening to break the surface. Those ripples finally erupt on “Never Let Me Go” and a sweeping version of “You’ve Changed”, which in Robin Petre’s arrangement starts by evoking Gershwin and rises to a resiliant, ‘I’ve had enough’ climax. Devereux does torch songs with aplomb, but also with attitude. No victim, she.

Album review – Margie Nelson: Hungry Girl

9 Oct

“Lost Mind” isn’t on the album but this live performance shows a fine jazz singer at work

Hungry Girl: time for Margie Nelson to set her sights further afield

There’s a lot of competition out there when it comes to albums based on the American standards. But still they keep on coming, filling your CD shelves and playlists until you’re awash in a hundred interpretations of “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Cry Me a River”. Some of them are very good, of course. But every so often, one turns up and delivers something so fresh and scintillating that it knocks everything else off the player. Hungry Girl from Californian Margie Nelson, a self-styled ‘late bloomer’ has just that effect.

Where has she been hiding, this mistress of deft phrasing, with her ear for the sardonic underbelly of a lyric, and her ability to balance comedy with moments of unadorned melancholy? In and around Santa Barbara for the last 15 years, according to her biographical notes, paying her dues in showcases, workshops and jazz clubs. It’s high time she started to set her sights further afield, because vocalists with this kind of talent deserve a much wider audience.

Hungry Girl should help. For a start, it contains by far and away the best version – with all due respect to Ms Streisand – I’ve ever heard of the Johnny Mandel/Alan and Marilyn Bergman classic “Where do you Start?” All sense of melodrama is banished. Nelson picks her way with arresting honesty through the bittersweet break-up lyrics, unravelling the bleakness as they shift from helpless uncertainty to self-realisation, ultimately finding a nugget of comfort in acknowledging the eternal hold of the departing lover. It becomes an epic tale, told with unflinching clarity. She’s great with a couple of other torch numbers – a lilting “If You Never Come to Me” and a late-night, bluesy “Don’t Go to Strangers” both stand out – revealing the intuitive gift of the best narrative singers.

Margie Nelson sings with the Montecito Jazz Project at the Environmental Defense Center's "TGIF" Benefit in Santa Barbara

There’s a dash of Julie Wilson’s artful story-telling (“I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart”) and Julie London’s laconic irony (“An Occasional Man”), as well as hints of the phrasing of the great jazz singers – Anita O’Day (Nelson’s heroine), Carmen McRae (listen to Nelson swing on “How Come?”) and Rosemary Clooney. In a nod to the technique of such illustrious forebears, when she declares “I Need Ya (Like I Need a Hole in the Head)”, not a single word of those acerbic-yet-resigned lyrics is wasted. But whatever her influences, Nelson is very much her own mistress – assured, putting a relaxed, timeless spin on such standards as “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, a swerving, slowed-down “The Best is Yet to Come” and a nicely contemporary “Be Cool”, as well her irresistible and articulate take on the title track.

She is greatly assisted by a top-flight band that includes her producer, drummer Kevin Winard, Christian Jacob and Quinn Johnson sharing keyboard duties, Kevin Axt on bass, saxophonist Matt Catingub and guitarist Stephen Geyer. The arrangements simply swing out from the speakers.

Album Reviews – Barb Jungr: Man in the Long Black Coat; Durga Rising

3 Oct

It Ain’t Me Babe: the camerawork might be shaky but here’s a real sense of Barb Jungr’s compelling technique

The Man in the Long Black Coat: Barb Jungr gets closer than ever to Bob Dylan's lyrics

There are three elders at the top of the tree when it comes to British female singers who have an instinctive ability to tell the whole story in a song: Norma Waterson, June Tabor and Barb Jungr. Forget any ungallant connotations. I use the word simply to connote wisdom and an almost forensic approach to their craft. If Waterson is the benevolent earth mother, Tabor is the cool, all-seeing and often bleak eye at the centre of life’s storm. Jungr, on the other hand, hurls herself into the maelstrom, seeking the key to the most visceral experiences in the songs and chansons of the great modern songwriters and rendering them into compelling dramas for the listener.

This summer saw the simultaneous release of two albums from Jungr. Strictly speaking, neither is actually ‘new’. Man in the Long Black Coat is a compilation of Bob Dylan recordings made since her groundbreaking 2002 set, Every Grain of Sand, with the bonus of four additional songs laid down in the studio at the start of this year. Durga Rising is the reissue of her 1997 collaboration with renowned Asian music producer Kuljit Bhamra and Jungr’s late, and much-missed, accompanist Russell Churney. Between them, these very different pieces of work showcase an unstinting commitment to innovation and exploration that runs like seams of resilient, glistening black jet through her finest interpretations. Why this important British singer is still waiting to make an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland is a mystery.

Some people have hailed Man in the Long Black Coat as Jungr’s best album yet. And there is certainly a holistic feel to the album; much of this possibly comes from the sense of a ‘journey’, in which Jungr is getting closer and closer to crystallising exactly what Dylan’s lyrics mean to her. In doing so, she becomes increasingly agile with the possibilities and nuances that they offer.

The four most recent tracks – the title track with its ominous, funereal bell, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, the bitter, ironic “With God on Our Side”, and the sublime “Sara” – were all arranged and recorded with pianist Jenny Carr. They reveal a singer at her peak, brimming with confidence in the material. Dylan purists will no doubt perceive liberties being taken. Let them get on with it. There’s an audacity and boldness about these reinvented classics that is rooted in Jungr’s sense of freedom in the world she discovers through them.

From the up tempo “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to the reggae beat of “Just Like a Woman”, a spacey treatment of “Like a Rolling Stone” and the bluesy “High Water”, Jungr pursues the truth in the lyrics with a spirit of adventure and a musicality that is always intriguing. Who else could dream of giving “Blind Willie McTell” the feel of a chanson and make it work with such flair?

Durga Rising: pain and darkness with splashes of dizzying happiness

“Willie McTell” also turns up in a different, more subdued version on Durga Rising. This album, sub-titled ‘An Indo-Jazz Adventure’ is a cornucopia of human experience; bhangra beats meet midnight soul. Jungr and Bhamra have taken it on the road recently, now with exemplary pianist Simon Wallace, to great acclaim.

Jungr’s natural territory is pain and darkness, but she can also spin tails of dizzying happiness. Both extremes are here in a collection of almost entirely self-penned lyrics (Dylan aside), and the music of Bhamra, Churney and her old partner-in-song Michael Parker.

Jungr, Bhamra and Wallace talk Durga Rising on the road

Bhamra’s percussion is ethereal and fleet-fingered, working with Jungr’s vocals in contrapuntal sequences that shimmer with energy. When things get dark, they get really dark. “How Could I Ever”, “Tears in a Bottle” and the lascerating, end-of-the-affair piece of advice, “Choose to be Alone”, offer delicious degrees of cynicism. So do the apocalyptic overtones of “Crimes Against Nature”. But there are plenty of lighter textures in the music, and the exhilarating, life affirming romance of “Bombay Dreaming” – a latin-ish, retro dance hall number – is balm for the most jaded spirit.

Album Review: Cæcilie Norby – Arabesque

10 May

The Dead Princess: Cæcilie Norby’s haunting take on Ravel

Arabesque: contemplative and modern treatments of classic melodies, with astringent lyrics

Arabesque is an edgy, moody collection of songs to thrill the musical iconoclast. Classical purists might run for the hills but Danish jazz singer Cæcilie Norby has come up with some extraordinary settings that shed new light on familiar melodies by Rimsky Korsakov, Satie and Debussy, boldly applying her own astringent lyrical interpretations of the stories behind them.

The result is an impressionistic aural feast, punctuated by a burst of funky swing (“Bei mir bist du schoen”), a couple of Michel Legrand tracks and an inspirational take on Abbey Lincoln’s “Wholly Earth”. In short, Norby, who has been a pioneer of modern Nordic music, straddling the choppy territory between jazz and pop with her refusal to be categorised, has sharpened her maverick credentials and come up with an audacious concept. Just when you think you’ve pinned it down, the musical influence on each track shifts into new territory.

“The Dead Princess” takes Ravel’s haunting theme and turns it into an exploration of the character of the composer’s benefactress, Princess Winnaretta de Polignac. His “Pavane”, so evocative in any setting, is transformed into a brooding meditation on the power of music to arouse memories and sensations.

Norby isn’t the first musician tempted to take liberties with Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” – prog rock band Renaissance built an entire album around it in the 1970s – but she treats it with great respect, her Arabian Nights-inspired lyrics swirling among the excellent accompaniment of musicians including pianist Katrine Gislinge, co-producer Lars Danielsson (on bass, cello and organ).

The percussion of Anders Engen and Xavier Devandre-Navarre is a crucial ingredient of Arabesque, fluid and driven, providing a great counterpoint to the fascinating texture of Norby’s voice. There is more than a hint of Berlin cabaret in her timbre – at times, comparisons with Ute Lemper are valid – but her phrasing is always contemplative and modern. Norby is more about the inner monologue than playing to the gallery.

Other highlights include “The Tears of Billie Blue”, a shimmering interpretation of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, and “No Air”, which turns Satie’s Gymnopédie into sultry, delicate soliloquy. There is also a Danish version of Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind” (“Hvirvelvinden”) and a bonus track, “How Oft”, a tribute to the singer’s father, Erik, who composed it. An absorbing landscape of an album.

CD Review: Cynthia Felton – Come Sunday: The Music of Duke Ellington

13 Apr

Cynthia Felton in a sentimental mood: assured torch-singing

Come Sunday: Dr Cynthia Felton's new twist on some Ellington favourites

If you like velvety, elegant jazz, Cynthia Felton’s Come Sunday: The Music of Duke Ellington will be music to your ears. This is emphatically not just another Ellington tribute.

Felton’s trademark is a contemporary R&B accent which gives these familiar and enduring numbers a refreshing new twist. And with a stellar line-up of accompanists including Patrice Rushen, Donald Brown and John Beasley on the piano, and drummers Terri Lynne Carrington and Jeff Tain Watts, it’s a classy piece of work.

Felton, who has a formidable academic pedigree and is artistic director of the Ethnomusicology Library of American Heritage, has produced the album herself with serene assurance. From the start, she shows she means business. A fast and furious “It Don’t Mean a Thing” introduces the accomplished scatting that later graces an easy, fluid take on “Perdido” and, of course, “Take the A Train”.

The first part of the album is all about celebrating the singer as an integral part of the band – another instrument rather than the voice out front. A swirling “Caravan” nods respectfully to the classic Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version but ultimately ploughs a new furrow as Felton kicks against the melody with her own off-beat, contrapuntal line. And with the title track half way through the set, she introduces a gospel influence that is yet another facet of her eclectic musical range.

To be honest, though, my own taste is more inclined to some of the later, midnight-flavoured tracks in which Felton gives herself the space and a lingering tempo to explore the lyrics.

Blessed with a voice of nearly four octaves, she proves herself a sultry torch-singer of considerable merit, with the assistance of Wallace Roney’s moaning trumpet on “I Got it Bad”, and a molten “Sophisticated Lady” that reveals the song’s broken but still beating heart. The last number, “Prelude to a Kiss”, is lifted by Carol Robbins’s harp, endowing it with that slightly melancholy last-dance feeling. Highly recommended.

Concert review: Girl Talk (Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson and Gwyneth Herbert), Mercury Theatre, Colchester, 29th March

30 Mar

Girl Talk: warm, generous, witty and sophisticated

Take three of Britain’s top female vocalists, each with her own distinctive style and a generous supply of sizzling one-liners. Give them the run of the complete songbook of womanhood. Ask them to come up with an entertainment that touches on the complexities of the female condition, offering catharsis for the women in the audience – and little windows of enlightenment for the men. Then sit back and enjoy the chemistry.

Girl Talk‘s I Am Woman, which unites the multiple talents of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson and Gwyneth Herbert, sashayed on to the stage at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester last night and delivered a show that brimmed with warmth, generosity, wit and sophistication, but was also peppered with some searingly emotional moments and bittersweet cynicism.

The new line-up (Herbert now occupies Claire Martin’s old spot) gives the singers a new dynamic to work with, pitching Jungr and Wilson’s hard-earned wisdom against the self-confessed young libertarian and allowing the sassy banter to set the songs up in hilarious ways. But more than anything, it gives them the freedom to show off their individual versatility within the framework of a trio. Between them, they share an abundance of musical gifts.

Barb Jungr: sings from the gut (photo by Steve Ullathorne)

Jungr, as always, sings from the gut. Even when she is ripping up a dubious lyric (the Doris Day number, “A Woman’s Touch” was delivered with many a knowing accent), she finds a way to wring some compelling truth from its remains. Wilson is a sublime song stylist with a voice of considerable range and the ability to give even the most familiar number a freshness that can make you feel you’re hearing the lyrics for the first time. And Herbert’s musicality makes her an endlessly fascinating presence, injecting some real edge with a timbre that veers from her trademark theremin tremelo down to a throaty contralto.

From the minute they launched into “Girls, Girls, Girls” – with the excellent Simon Wallace at the piano, standing in for the indisposed Adrian York – the harmonies were exhilarating. Several numbers were delivered a cappella, with an infectious verve that conveyed just how much fun they were having on stage. “Under My Thumb” was given a typically risqué introduction and liberties were taken with the lyrics of the Bacharach/David classic “Wishin’ and Hopin’”, sticking a stiletto into their dated, submissive message. “Where Do You Go to My Lovely?” and, gloriously reinvented, that bizarre, epic 1982 travelogue “I’ve Never Been to Me”, were given similarly arch treatment.

Mari Wilson: sublime song stylist (picture by John Haxby)

From “Jump the Broomstick” to the joyously anthemic “I Am Woman”, the songs flowed thick and fast, each one delivering its own thrills and surprises. A mash-up of “I’m Every Woman” (Jungr), the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” (with an up tempo Wilson soaring) and the Lisa Stansfield mega hit “All Woman” (Herbert in whisky-and-nicotine mode) was the tumultuous highlight of the second half; the arrangement was exhilarating.

But it wasn’t just about three established singers kicking back and enjoying safety in numbers. Each also had a solo spot and treated us to some superb torch singing. Herbert led the way in the first half with an absorbing take on “The Other Woman”: the mistress materialised in front of us, trapped in the ebb and flow of her private agony. Then Wilson delivered a ravishing “Touch Me in the Morning” that had the audience hanging on every word and, I suspect, banished all thoughts of the haughty Miss Ross. Finally, Jungr tore into “Woman in Love”. Think Piaf at her peak with a dash of Callas in the characterisation, and you’ll get the idea. Streisand has always declined to sing it in her concerts, despite the fact that it was one of her biggest hits, because she doesn’t identify with the lyrics. If she’d been in Colchester last night, she might have found a clue or two.

Gwyneth Herbert: from theremin to throaty contralto

This new Girl Talk is tremendously promising. The arc of the evening is brilliantly set by the different qualities of the three singers. There is work to be done on the links, certainly, and the ‘journey’ through the emotions and facets of life could be more clearly defined. But these are quibbles about an act that is still at its formative stage, with the potential to explore so many possibilities in terms of material and style. As Girl Talk evolves, it will be fascinating to see how their characters evolve within the context of the show, and strike sparks off each other. If these women come to your town, don’t miss the chance to see them. They’re a class act.

Concert review: Mari Wilson and Ian Shaw at Fleece Jazz (Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club), 26th March 2011

26 Mar
The Abbey Road Sessions: Ian Shaw’s new album explored

Mari Wilson: far from common (picture by John Haxby)

As double acts go, they don’t come much more dynamic than Mari Wilson and Ian Shaw, who dusted Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club’s Garden Room last night with a touch of glamour, a smattering of camp asides, the odd ribald show-business tale and, above all, majestic vocal talents that temporarily made this unpromising venue feel like the epicentre of musical sophistication.

Old friends and occasional collaborators they might be. But their Fleece Jazz gig only came about at the eleventh hour – Adrian York, Mari’s regular pianist and co-writer having been taken ill the previous weekend. Shaw stepped into the breach with alacrity, consummate keyboard skills and that resonant voice that swings absorbingly between husky soulfulness and the yearning ache of a consummate male torch singer.

Despite Mari’s request to bear with their lack of preparation, they were so obviously – and professionally – at ease with each other’s musical strengths and instincts that on the rare occasion that meltdown threatened (most hysterically as improvisation came to the rescue when the lyrics deserted them for “Something Stupid” at the start of the second set), they readily pulled themselves back from the brink.

There was a comically awkward start: the room was long and when they were introduced, they were so far back that by the time they actually arrived, the audience’s greeting had petered out. “The applause grew as the artists reached the stage,” joked Shaw with just the right hint of acid, and we knew we’d have to be on our mettle as they batted anecdotes and memories to and fro between songs. “Whoop as much as you like,” said Mari. “We don’t mind – we’re common”. But in truth there was nothing common about the two sets that followed.

Shaw’s jazz-accented playing, always sympathetic to Wilson’s fluid, smooth phrasing, also spurred her to invention. By the end of the evening, she was letting fly with some exhilarating gospel-tinged soul riffs. In a recent interview, she told me that “Cry Me A River” – pretty much her signature song – was, like any one of those well structured, well-written standards, the musical equivalent of a football pitch. Its lyrical truths allow the singer to take it and try it out in any direction. Last night, she took it out to the left field with some dazzling extemporisation, steered by Shaw’s ominous, subdued accompaniment. It was as fine an interpretation as you’re ever likely to hear.

Mari Wilson sings “Cry Me a River” at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 2010

But there were numerous other highlights. “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” (which Wilson sung as the theme to the BBC comedy Coupling), “Just What I Always Wanted” (her biggest chart hit from the 1980s, key helpfully lowered by Shaw, revealing that it remains one of the era’s best crafted pop songs) and “My Love” (an interpretation of touching emotional maturity), all demonstrated what an accomplished singer she is these days. So, too, did a couple of Dusty Springfield numbers – “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten” and “Son of a Preacher Man” – in which, while paying homage to an all-time-great, she triumphantly applied her own nuances and melodic lines. No ghosts were invited to this party.

From time to time, she retreated to a corner of the stage. We were, as she pointed out, getting two for the price of one, and Shaw seized his moments with grace and vocal power – particularly for a resonant “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (sung as a retort to Wilson’s “Be My Baby”) and an extraordinary version of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia”, which had the entire room transfixed by its beauty and eloquence.

It might have been “thrown together” as Mari put it, but this was a memorable evening, defined by the innate class of two performers at the top of their respective trees.

Joni Mitchell singing Amelia in 1983