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Album review – Gwyneth Herbert: The Sea Cabinet

5 Jun

Gwyneth Herbert talks about the genesis of The Sea Cabinet

Haunted and haunting: Gwyneth Herbert's Sea Cabinet is a triumph of eclecticism

Haunted and haunting: Gwyneth Herbert’s Sea Cabinet is a triumph of eclecticism

Haunted and haunting. Poignant and achingly beautiful. Ribald and raunchy.  Evocative and nostalgic. These are just a few of the adjectives that spring to mind as Gwyneth Herbert’s inspired, crowd-funded and self-released new album scatters and spills its contents before the intrigued listener.

The Sea Cabinet started life at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, following Herbert’s artistic residency with Aldeburgh Music. The concert at which she introduced this cycle of sea-inspired songs was absorbing, heralding a work of great promise, albeit still very much in progress and charmingly rough-hewn in places. Almost three years later, that promise has been fully realised.

Herbert’s wide-ranging musical references – sea shanties, Edwardian parlour songs, folk airs and laments, chansons, bluesy bar songs – are impeccable. And she has woven them into a fluent, multi-textured piece from which her eclecticism emerges triumphant and accessible. There isn’t a trace of pretentiousness.  She has laboured over her lyrics, honing and polishing them so that they shimmer across a constantly shifting aural landscape of rhythms and ghostly echoes.

The concept of a solitary woman picking her way along the shore and storing the fruits of her beach-combing in a cabinet, provides a beautifully simple arc for the album. Herbert’s achievement is to populate the memories and ideas inspired by the woman’s discoveries with a cast of characters who spring vividly to life before they are absorbed back into the ebb and flow of diverse melodies.

Mrs Wittering, the owner of the Regal, emerges from the fading gentility of her tea room to take a bow. The petticoat-flashing “Fishguard Ladies” live once more to see off the French fleet. Old salts and soldiers jostle for position. But there is also plenty of underlying darkness and melancholy, not least in the sombre tale of wartime “Alderney”.  In the beguiling “Sweet” and the increasingly belligerent “I Still Hear the Bells” there is also a sense of the personal experiences that brought Herbert to the emotional place which inspired The Sea Cabinet.

She is ably assisted by fellow singer/songwriter Fiona Bevan, who collaborates on “I Still Hear the Bells” and “The King’s Shilling”, by The Rubber Wellies, and by regular band Al Cherry, Sam Burgess and David Price. But it’s Herbert’s own voice, ranging from that of a sweet folk siren to jazz canary and late-night blues singer, which gives the album its momentum.

Snatches of the songs continue  to swirl and soar in the air long after The Sea Cabinet has spun to a stop, not least the “Sea Theme” which opens and closes the set, tempered with field recordings that add pleasingly disturbing frissons of mystery and unease. In its lovingly-produced completeness, this album is a work of art.

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Album review – Liane Carroll: Ballads

1 May

You’ve Got a Friend: Liane Carroll and Ian Shaw in concert

Ballads: grown-up standards delivered with class

Ballads: grown-up standards delivered with class

Liane Carroll’s new album Ballads leaves you utterly wrung out in the best possible way.  Her soulful treatment and sublime phrasing discover previously uncharted nooks and crannies in this elegant selection of standards and torch songs, interspersed with a bit of Todd Rundgren (“Pretending to Care”), Carole King (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) and Buddy Holly (“Raining in My Heart”).

Like a plume of smoke rising from a midnight cigarette, her voice sends these much-loved lyrics spiralling into the air, where they mingle and conjure bittersweet images of love and loss – mainly loss, it must be said – that vibrate with authenticity.

As a vocalist, Carroll is emphatically her own woman. Instinctive and inventive, she laces familiar words with underlying melancholy, and barbs of experience and wisdom, inhabiting the melodies and teasing them in unexpected directions. If I draw comparisons with Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, it’s only because she clearly belongs in such exalted company.

Under James McMillan’s production, her talents are brilliantly matched with spacious yet intimate, modern arrangements – mostly by Chris Walden – and an eloquent band that includes pianist Mark Edwards and saxophonist Kirk Whalum.  The chemistry between Carroll and her musicians is well illustrated by “Calgary Bay”, a sweeping original number by Sophie Bancroft.

“Here’s to Life” and “Only the Lonely” become epics with an almost cinematic quality. “My One and Only Love” and “Mad About the Boy” are reinvented as languorous threnodies. Strings abound, but discreetly, never overwhelming Carroll’s voice as she steers a steady, assured course through each number. Not for her the frills and melismatic swoops that pass for singing in most 21st-century pop music. So when she does let rip – in a devastating take on “Pretending to Care”, for example – it is thrilling to hear, and deeply affecting.

There is more dark than light in these choices. The pace is thoughtful and serious, absorbing, rolling with disappointment and betrayal rather than railing against it: grown-up readings which take a 360-degree view of the lyrics, opening them up into a tapestry of life experience.

The year is yet reasonably young, but it will take a lot for another album to beat Ballads for sheer  class and simple artistry.

Album review – Deborah Shulman and Larry Zalkind: Lost in the Stars, The Music of Bernstein, Weill & Sondheim

23 Dec

Mack the Knife: Shulman and Zalkind whip up a little vortex of menace

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars is a classy little jewel of an album. It takes a couple of listens for the sheer quality and uncluttered lustre of Deborah Shulman’s vocals to take hold, so understated and subtle are they. But once they have you in their thrall, they yield refined treasure.

The album is based on songs from a trinity of musical theatre composers – Weill, Bernstein and Sondheim – who need no further introduction. The delight is in the ease with which Shulman teases out nuances and revelations from numbers that you might think you know inside out.

There’s an eerie, unsettling version of “Mack the Knife”, for example, which sweeps you up into a little vortex of menace, light years from the bravado that most singers ladle on. And if “The Ladies Who Lunch” replaces the traditional self-scorning attack with a more observational, modulated treatment, it’s certainly a fresh approach to some of Sondheim’s most visceral lyrics. That clarity extends to “Children will Listen”, a lilting “I Feel Pretty” and an assured, stark and mournful “Losing My Mind”.

Shulman’s restraint pays such dividends that it almost seems a shame not to hear how she might handle “My Ship”, here an elegant instrumental solo for her brother-in-law, the trombonist Larry Zalkind, whose contribution to the album is equally fascinating. He leads an accomplished band of accompanists who provide Shulman with some intriguing counter harmonies to work against. The texture they bring to the gently swinging “September Song” and the washed-up, after-hours blues of “Ain’t got no Tears Left” is sublime. Serious without once sounding earnest or worthy, this is an album of standards for grownups.

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.