Archive | Female Jazz Singer RSS feed for this section

CD Review – Clare Teal: Hey Ho

3 Mar

Tea for Two: an up tempo number from Clare Teal shows her vocal prowess but as Hey Ho shows, she can slow it down to great effect

Hey Ho: celebrates the glorious diversity of British song writing and is one of Teal's best albums to date

For a no-nonsense, hearty Yorkshire lass, Clare Teal has the uncanny knack of triggering all kinds of unexpected emotions as she peals back the layers of even the hoariest old chestnut. At least twice as I put her jauntily titled new album Hey Ho through its first couple of spins, I realised my tear ducts had responded instinctively to the uncluttered honesty she brings to a ballad, as she cuts through the basic sentimentality of the lyrics and catches you unaware with something fresh and current.

And while there is plenty of up tempo fun to be had here, not least in the Latin beats of Teal’s take on “It’s Not Unusual” – a radical makeover for Tom Jones’s signature song – and “Sing it Back”, or a sultry, laid-back “Feeling Good”, it is her treatment of the ballads that lingers longest in the mind, provocative and challenging.

Hey Ho has been conceived and compiled thoughtfully, with a dash of inspirational boldness, to celebrate great British song writing, dusting the numbers with the lightest of jazz touches in the process. How Noel Coward or Ivor Novello, let alone W. B. Yeats (present courtesy of Herbert Hughes’ setting of his poem, “Down by the Sally Gardens”) would have felt rubbing shoulders with Annie Lennox, Snow Patrol or Moloko is anybody’s guess. All that matters is that here, Teal and her collaborators have identified the common threads that run through some of their most lovedsongs and come up with a musical tapestry that does them all proud.

A lilting and poignant version of Coward’s “If Love Were All” opens proceedings, touching in its exploration of some basic human truths and the reduction of the entertainer’s art to a simple talent to amuse. Time and again, Teal returns to similar introspection and commentary as she tackles “Why” with a softness that makes for a fascinating contrast with the basilisk coldness of Lennox’s original, and “Chasing Cars” with an intimacy that finds startling simplicity at the heart of Snow Patrol’s anthem. “Try a Little Tenderness” and Cleo Laine’s “He Was Beautiful” are achingly sad and dazzling in their clarity.

But for me – and the cause of my misty eyes – the vocal fluency of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and the final track, “We’ll Gather Lilacs”, sum up what this album is all about. There is nothing halting or reticent about Teal’s delivery on these gentle, restrained tracks; just the assuredness of a singer at the peak of her powers. When she opens up her throat, the warmth of her timbre is like the sun coming out. And to make Novello’s lilacs sound completely relevant and immediate in 2011 is a triumph. With only a piano for accompaniment, she makes the song glow with meaning.

Credit must also go to pianist Grant Windsor for his production and musical arrangements, and to Teal’s musicians who include guitarist Femi Temowo and, on “Love is The Sweetest Thing”, stellar saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.

Teal wears her talent with the down-to-earth characteristics of her home county. She once told me in an interview that she was finding her success “Mad as cheese”. With an album of this quality to add to her already distinguished resumé, those flavours should be ripening very nicely by now. Hey Ho is one of her best yet.

CD Review – Tamela D’Amico: Got a Little Story

3 Mar

And I Love Him: D’Amico in the studio, showing off her risky phrasing

Tamela D’Amico is no mere canary or foil for the big band. She has one of those voices that doesn’t sidle shyly up and ask respectfully for your attention. It swoops in and insists that you listen. One minute it’s powerful and keening. The next it’s intimate and conversational, in half-past midnight mode, cards on the table time.

Got a Little Story: the work of a formidable song stylist

Her debut album Got A Little Story is a swinging, fluid collection of standards, punctuated with a bit of Lennon and McCartney, Harry Connick, Jr. and Ann Hampton Callaway – the latter cited by D’Amico in her thank-you notes and clearly a modern inspiration to match the greats of yesteryear who also get a mention.

The whole production exudes a sumptuous glamour thanks to a sizeable orchestra of top-flight instrumentalists – one or two are given solos – which, under Chris Walden’s baton, cradles D’Amico’s multiple vocal shades in soothing strings, appropriately brassy horns and the subtle, easy touch of Jim Cox on the piano.

She proves herself a formidable song stylist. Every word is audible, a rarity for a singer who lives so much in the upper register. And she is risky to the point of audacity in her phrasing. Imagine Billie Holiday singing “And I Love Him” and you’ll get the idea. D’Amico combines the instincts and hard-earned musical sensibilities of her heroines with a touch of Broadway verve and a contemporary technique in such a way that you never feel you’re being treated to just another nostalgia trip.

She may not share Peggy Lee’s small, husky vibrato – D’Amico’s voice is an altogether different instrument – but she pays homage to another big influence with a swinging, unfussy “He’s a Tramp”, letting the lyrics lead the way. Other up tempo numbers like “The Gentleman is a Dope” and the Gershwins’ “They All Laughed” zing with vitality, while Arlen and Mercer’s “One for My Baby” and “When October Goes” (Mercer again, this time with Barry Manilow) are layered with resignation and a restrained hint of melancholy. Likewise, a swirling, jazzy take on Callaway’s “Perfect”, which brings the album to a poignant close like a wistful sigh.

Not on this album but also worth a listen is D’Amico’s most recent recording of “Down With Love”.

CD Review – Renée Yoxon: Let’s Call it a Day; plus news of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Girl Talk, Marianne Faithfull and a Sondheim cabaret season

24 Dec

Renée Oxon sings “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” on a fire escape in Ottawa. The sound quality on her album, Let’s Call it a Day, (reviewed below) is much better!

Wilson, Jungr and Herbert: the new Girl Talk line-up hits London in February

Congratulations to Barb Jungr, whose album The Men I Love has just been named Cabaret CD of the Year by Time Out New York.

Barb and Mari Wilson will be joined in the new year by the equally talented Gwyneth Herbert, as they launch a revived Girl Talk with a new show – I Am Woman. Girl Talk begin a week-long residence at The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road on 8th February.

Mari has just released a fabulous slab of electro-pop, with a slash of retro hi-energy, collaborating with Boisounds on a party floor filler, “O.I.C.”, which is available for free download.

Horses & High Heels: Marianne Faithfull's new album, out in March

Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses & High Heels comes out in March. “I don’t really do conventional,” she warns us in advance publicity. As if we didn’t know. A taster track, the self-penned “Why Did We Have to Part”, is available for free download until 19th January.

Back at The Pheasantry, there is a really good reason for fans of Stephen Sondheim’s work to join the Sondheim Society. In tandem with the Society, producer Sam Joseph has conceived a series of Monday night cabarets starring some of the biggest names from all areas of London musical theatre. Society members benefit from advance notice of the programme and discounted ticket prices. Confirmed so far are: Alex Young (10th January), Sally Ann Triplett (21st February) and Mrs Lovett-to be – at Chichester later in the year – Imelda Staunton (14th March). Future appearances are expected by Rosemary Ashe, Janie Dee, Robert Meadmore, Adrian Grove, Graham Bickley, Michael Peavoy and leading West End musical director Gareth Valentine.

Let's Call it a Day: an auspicious debut from Renée Yoxon

Who’d have thought a physics degree would be the ideal foundation for a career as a torch singer? OK, so she was doing a little music on the side, but Renée Yoxon’s decision to ditch formulae for the jazz clubs of Ottawa is one of those left-field decisions that can occasionally lead to thrilling careers. And on the evidence of her first album, Let’s Call it a Day, this young Canadian could be the biggest female talent to emerge in her field since Diana Krall.

It’s an assured and auspicious debut. Accompanied only by veteran virtuoso René Gely on a selection of guitars – his steel string, in particular, rings with marvellously crisp authority – and occasional piano, Yoxon has reinvented a selection of standards with a refreshing boldness. Not in a revolutionary way, but mainly by re-establishing the lyric as the focus of attention, stripping it away from the overblown tendencies of so many younger interpreters at the moment.

Yoxon’s voice is something to treasure. Like one of the UK’s rising stars, Rumer, with her slightly husky accents and bang-on vocal authority, nothing seems to intimidate Yoxon. The opening track, “The Look of Love”, is a case in point. Bacharach’s off-beat melodies are notoriously tricky to do well, but Yoxon slides through it with lightly-oiled ease.

Undercurrents of melancholy and Billie Holiday-like phrasing seep through her interpretations of “Willow Weep for Me”, a shimmering “The Masquerade is Over” and of course – with an intimacy that’s almost audaciously spare – “Don’t Explain”. Two self-penned numbers, “Let’s Call it a Day” and “Lovers’ Lullaby” add to the album’s sense of freshness. There’s also a French-language version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well be Spring”.

If the final track, “One For My Baby”, betrays her youthfulness and lack of cynicism – catharsis seekers will probably miss the spirit of a wracked and bloodshot Sinatra – equally, it hints at what we can expect from Yoxon in the future. She’s set herself a high bar indeed.

CD Review – Fragile: Tanja Maritsa

22 Dec

Memory Box: a number from Tanja Maritsa’s previous album, Child in My Heart

Fragile: a little piece of magic

Here’s proof that it’s possible to be gentle, understated, enigmatic and provocative, all at the same time. London-based Tanja Maritsa’s second album, Fragile, insinuates itself into your head and drifts around, underscoring the changing moods of the day. Not in a ghastly, earworm fashion. But in the way her intimate vocals – so soft that they’re almost whispered rather than sung, daringly close to the mic (she has an assured technical confidence) – wrap themselves around you.

Maritsa’s top-class band provide jazz inflections and undertones that shimmer around her voice – James Graydon’s guitar and Richard Cottle (who works regularly with Claire Martin) on the piano deserve special mention for the delicacy of their playing – as she swings her way delicately through Colette Meury’s pristine arrangements. Richard Niles has done a masterful production job, pulling together a diverse range of musical references and nuances in such a way that the shifts in tone, style and tempo never jar.

Maritsa keeps your expectations on their toes. The lilting opening track, “Live for Today”, promises a retro, 1950s nightclub experience, full of simple optimism, which is revisited later on in “No More the Blues”. But don’t be fooled, because there is plenty of food for the soul’s darker side to come, not least in Maritsa’s treatment of Sting’s “Fragile” – the title track and one of two imported numbers (the others are all from Maritsa’s pen) – and the poignant “Fading Grace” and “Always With You”. Loss, renewal and moving on are constant themes. The final ballad, “Fading Grace”, is a poignant acceptance of grief and lost innocence, its emotional impact only heightened by the spare delivery.

There are hints of chanson in “Won’t You Dance” and “In Love Again”, jazz-tinged folk in “On the Other Side of the World”, and bossa nova in the Astor Piazzolla number “Libertango”, but every time you think you’ve identified a specific style, Maritsa spins you on to a new perspective in her subtle, irresistible way. Fragile is a thoughtful, beautifully conceived little piece of magic.

CD Review – Lea DeLaria: Be a Santa

21 Dec

Lea DeLaria: a cat isn’t just for Christmas…

Lea DeLaria: a one-woman melting pot of serious musicianship and showbiz

What makes a great Christmas album? For me, it’s a performer’s ability to bring something new to those familiar songs and carols, with a dash of wit and intelligence – and even mischief. I want something that has a shelf-life which easily overflows the frantic couple of weeks leading up to the day itself, and that I’ll be quite happy to listen to on its merits well into January without the ennui setting in.

So while I’m sure Mariah Carey’s multitude of fans have been thrilled by the melismatic orgy that is Merry Christmas II You, it won’t be agitating my CD player this year or next. And although I’ve been a diehard Annie Lennox fan since her Tourists days – when there weren’t that many of us around – it pains me to say that the earnest intensity of her Christmas Cornucopia had me turning down the volume in irritation, until I was left in silence, watching the snow drift in the darkness through the window.

Be a Santa: one of the best jazz flavoured Christmas albums from a female singer since Cleo Laine's Christmas at the Stables

Then Lea DeLaria’s Be a Santa arrived, and promptly joined that small, select set of Christmas albums on my shelf that I’ll start reaching for every November in search of something to make the winter solstice swing.

Be a Santa is steeped in DeLaria’s trademark vocal dexterity. With her musical partner in crime Janette Mason, she’s taken a host of favourites and whipped them up into a jazzy triumph of verve and invention. She’s all whisky-and-honey tones for a bluesy, brazen take on Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, tears the house down with a rip-roaring “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – the band, incidentally, is dazzling throughout – then puts her own thoughtful, close-to-the-mic stamp on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that takes you a million miles away from Judy Garland’s trembling vibrato. It’s a rare moment of intimate calm in an album that is otherwise delivered at a fair old lick.

DeLaria doesn’t put a foot wrong as she gets her tongue around some quick-fire lyrics (“The Man With the Bag”) without ever sacrificing clarity. That’s singing of the highest quality. And even when there aren’t words – witness the exuberant scatting on “White Christmas” – you forget you’re listening to songs that should have a strictly seasonal appeal and revel in one of the finest, most fluid voices on the scene. There is novelty, too. DeLaria and Mason have included one of their own compositions – “A Modern Christmas Tale” – which manages to combine a nostalgic, retro melody with allusions to all the angst-inducing banalities of getting ready for the big day in 2010.

When I last interviewed DeLaria, I called her a one-woman melting pot of serious musicianship and showbiz. The integrity of the music is incredibly important to her, she told me, but so is what happens between the songs, and the desire to give a good show on stage is paramount.

“There’s a language to jazz and the numbers, structures and harmonics are all built into it,” she said. “Do I have a talent? It seems to be. If you’d asked me five years ago, I don’t know whether I’d have said that. But having put out three records and worked with the people I’ve worked with, I am ready to say that yes, I do.”

Now, she’s put out four records, and Be a Santa is prime evidence of a vocalist in her prime – and probably the best jazz-flavoured album from a female singer since Cleo Laine’s Christmas at the Stables. The wit is all in the interpretation and if there’s just one thing missing, it’s a risqué, festive “Dirty Martini” moment. If you want to know what I mean, check out Play it Cool, and enjoy. Or just make do with DeLaria’s Egg Nog recipe, included in the liner notes.

CD Review: Joyce Cobb with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio

5 Oct

The making of the album: Joyce Cobb and Michael Jefry Stevens in the studio

Joyce Cobb with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio: an album of considerable quality

I’d never claim to be a jazz expert, so when I listen to a singer who’s been filed in that particular section, it’s as the eternal novice. As with the work of a painter or a sculptor, my response is always visceral. I like it instantly or I don’t. Very occasionally, something grows on me after several plays or over the course of a set at a gig. But usually, it’s that first reaction that sticks. I’ll leave the hardcore analysis to the genre’s aficionados.

So what was my first reaction to Joyce Cobb with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio? Aside from the fact that it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue as an album title, I was hooked. “Right, here we go,” says Joyce Cobb , one of Memphis’s finest exports, at the start, launching into a harmonica intro to “Moanin’” before unleashing her warm, honeyed tones on the lyrics. It’s a potent combination that leaves you in doubt that you’re in the presence of an assured, class act.

Cobb might be billed as a jazz singer, but there is plenty of soul in her voice too. That means comparisons with Ella (coming through in Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz”), Billie (whose ghost is surely hovering in “If You Know Love”) and Sarah are inevitable. She certainly doesn’t come up short in the bold phrasing or the way she takes the melody and unravels it like a fine thread of gold. She bends it and stretches it but never lets go of the line. That’s a singer’s singer for you. And in the company of Michael Jefry Stevens on the piano, with Jonathan Wires on the bass and Renardo Ward on drums, she has precisely the framework she needs to work some intriguing magic with this set of standards. And comparisons aside, what comes across most clearly is the art of Cobb herself, in absolute command of every song, serene and completely comfortable within the music. Her voice is a prism of shifting moods and emotions.

There’s a beautifully restrained “Skylark”, with Stevens sublime on the piano, a playful “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” that banishes the threat of Earth Kitt-style outrageousness to the far reaches, and a lovely mash-up of the Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh ballad “I’m in the Mood for Love” with some new lyrics from James Moody. “If You Never Come to Me” has a breezy samba quality. Stevens lays on the atmosphere again at the start of the plaintive Jimmy van Heusen/Johnny Mercer number, “I Thought About You”. It’s Wires’ turn to shine with a spare accompaniment to Duke Ellington’s lament “Daydream”. By the time Cobb gets scatting – something, I’ll admit, I’ve always found an acquired taste – on Thelonious Monk’s “It’s Over Now (Well You Needn’t)”, she’s long since had us in the palm of her hand.

This is an album of considerable quality that rewards repeated listening, which is just as well for us here in the UK. In the absence of any London gigs from Cobb, we’ll have to make do with it for the time being.

Lucky readers in mainland Europe, however, can find her with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio on tour right now in the following cities: 5th October, Prague (Jazz Dock); 6th October, Graz, Austria (Stockwerk); 7th October, Vienna (Reigen-live); 8th October, Darmstadt, Germany (Knabenschule); 9th October, Luxemburg (L’Inoui Café); 10th October, Brussels (L’Archiduc); 11th October, Frankfurt (Jazz Keller); 12th October, Reutlingen (Artgallery Reutlingen); 13th October, Neustadt (Katakombe); 14th October, Paderborn (Jazz Club), 15th October, Lausanne (Chorus); 16th October, Chur, Switzerland (Jazz Club).

Concert review: Gwyneth Herbert, An Exploration of the Sea, Britten Studio, Snape, 1st October 2010

2 Oct
A legend in her own living room: Gwyneth Herbert’s acoustic version of “My Narrow Man”

Gwyneth Herbert: a vocal chameleon in statement shoes

It was quite a night to head up to Snape on the wild side of Suffolk for the premiere of Gwyneth Herbert’s sea-inspired new song cycle. The heavens seemed to be hurling buckets of water in rapid succession at the windscreen, making the A12 in the rush hour even more of a challenge than usual.

In the 30 seconds it took to dart from the car to the dry haven of the Britten Studio foyer, some of us had good reason to consider returning our waterproofs to their manufacturer with a stinging reference to the Trade Descriptions Act. Out on the salt marsh, curtains of rain continued to blow in from the North Sea. Autumn had arrived with a wet fanfare. Could Herbert’s experimental piece – the fruit of a six-month Aldeburgh Residency – possibly live up to such an appropriately elemental setting?

Yes, indeed it could. First, however, she sharpened our appetites with a set based mainly on songs from her most recent album, All the Ghosts, setting off at a cracking pace in statement heals and polkadots. “So Worn Out” was an instant showcase for one of the most fascinating, multi-textured female voices on the scene. Herbert can veer from smoky blues to a keening falsetto in a single phrase – a stiff challenge for the dextrous sound engineer, on his mettle throughout the evening. One minute, she has the sweet, clear timbre of the innocent folk singer. The next, she’s growling Grace Slick-style with the throaty rasp of a leather-lunged survivor. She’s a vocal chameleon, and it suits the rich imagery of songs that tell eccentric, sad, joyful and vibrant stories of life in London town that ring with authenticity.

All the Ghosts: vibrant stories of London life

Herbert’s virtuosity, and her eclectic taste in obscure instruments, asks a lot of her band: guitarist Al Cherry, Dave Price on a multitude of percussion, and Steve Holness on the double bass. And they did her proud through a roller-coaster repertoire, from the jaunty ode to a quaint boyfriend (“My Narrow Man”) to the melancholy torch-song “Some Days I Forget”, as close to an English chanson as you will find. “My Mini and Me” rang bells with anyone who finally has to say farewell to their first car, and “Annie’s Yellow Bag” struck a bittersweet blow for creative individuality. Sung live, “Put Your Mouth Where Your Money Is” came across like a gallows march for the critics, and despite Herbert’s disarmingly cheery wink, had some of us shifting uneasily in our seats.

But for me, the most affecting moment in the first half was the detour she made via a song from the score Herbert was commissioned to write for a screening of the Marion Davies silent film The Patsy. Even out of context, “Not the Sort of Girl” was an exquisite portrait of a whimsical creature, brought to life by Herbert’s plain, restrained vocal work.

That gift for conjuring characters in the space between the stage and the audience became even more apparent after the interval. For the eagerly awaited second set, Herbert and her band were joined by writer Heidi James and idiosyncratic folk trio The Rubber Wellies for a piece described as “An exploration of the sea”. Weaving the spoken word with Herbert’s evocative lyrics and audio tracks, the enlarged group proceeded to paint an aural seascape, populated by figures who sprang readily to life in the mind’s eye.

Herbert explained how she’d been inspired by her walks on the Aldeburgh shingle, by random conversations and encounters, to create a song cycle that roams far and wide for its references. In her pungent lyrics and engaging melodies, tavern drinkers rub shoulders with the redoubtable Fishguard women who repelled the invaders at the end of the 18th century; a captain thinks longingly of home; the brilliantly-sketched Miss Wittering – my favourite – sighs her way around the decaying gentility of her seaside hotel. And all are linked via Heidi James’s absorbing tale of the beachcomber, obsessively cataloguing her finds and sorting them in the shack, her “museum”. You waited agog to find out what the next list of detritus would contain.

The audience was enthralled. This was a mesmerising set, peppered with moments of drama, that found its way to the heart of our intense, ambivalent relationship with the seaside. There was, for example, a minute of eerie magic as Herbert, who had disappeared from sight, hypnotically rolling pebbles across the stretched hide of a drum to replicate the ebb and flow of the sea, reappeared at the back of the auditorium, her siren voice floating unaccompanied down to the front row.

As a subject, the sea plays to all Herbert’s strengths as a songwriter, and she has responded in kind with laments and shanties to stir the heart. Any quibbles are minor – a cluttered stage, which sometimes prevented her from moving fluidly from mic to piano, for example, and the lack of an imaginative lighting plot that would have heightened the drama – and will surely be resolved as the piece evolves from being a freshly minted work in progress.

This is only the beginning for Gwyneth Herbert’s sea song cycle, which surely has an exciting future in live performance and – please, Mr Producer – a good recording.

CD Review – Monica Mancini: I’ve Loved These Days

25 Jul

Monica Mancini proves her musical pedigree at the Montreux Jazz Festival

I've Loved These Days: a cherry-picked playlist of rare quality

It isn’t often that I’m tempted to call an album “flawless”. There is usually a track or two that misses the mark, doesn’t connect with the whole, has a slight hint of beating the deadline about it – good enough but not quite in the zone. But Monica Mancini’s I’ve Loved These Days has such a calm sense of completeness about it that I’ve found myself staring at the Bose in astonishment. During the first listen, round about an absorbing reinvention of “How Can I Be Sure” – a number I’ve only ever associated with Dusty Springfield, despite David Cassidy’s best efforts – I actually caught myself thinking, “They really don’t make records like this any more.”

And to be honest, in the best possible way, there is a strong retro feel about the whole thing, not least because Mancini’s phrasing and diction are so effortlessly cool. You don’t miss a single lyric – and how often does that happen these days? Every word is considered, explored and offered up with an honesty that brings to mind female pop singers of the highest calibre: Karen Carpenter or Dionne Warwick at their instinctive best.

The choice of songs also adds to the sense of a time slip. Mancini has cherry-picked a 1960s playlist of rare quality – and in many cases enlisted the help of their originators: Jackson Browne plays guitar and sings backing vocals on “These Days”; Stevie Wonder’s unmistakable harmonica burnishes “Blame it on the Sun”; and Brian Wilson – vocally ageless – features on an intriguingly pared-down “God Only Knows”, giving Mancini the chance to show her mettle against a taste of those legendary Beach Boy harmonies.

These collaborations are testament to Mancini’s musical pedigree, as the daughter of Henry Mancini, the composer behind some of the most iconic film soundtracks of the 20th century. Many of the songwriters she honours here were her father’s peers and clearly exerted a profound influence on her own musical development. Indeed, she calls them her “musical heroes” and offers I’ve Loved These Days as a discovery of what their songs continue to reveal. In that sense, the album makes an interesting comparison with Barb Jungr’s The Men I Love. They both raise a musical toast to Paul Simon, for example: Jungr with “My Little Town” and Mancini with “American Tune”.

Although this album isn’t exclusively American in content – there is a poignant take on the Lennon/McCartney number “I’ll Follow the Sun” – an undercurrent of oblique commentary on the modern emotional landscape of her homeland occasionally ripples to the surface, particularly in the compassion of the Fran Landesman classic “Ballad of the Sad Young Men”, Billy Joel’s “I’ve Loved These Days”, and the flute-dusted beauty of Janice Ian’s “Joy”.

The arrangements are spare, acoustic and almost regal in their simplicity. Mancini clearly didn’t want to simply do an all-purpose album of cover versions. Instead, these are gleaming reinterpretations in which the lyrics take centre stage. Producer Phil Ramone – who had a hand in the original versions of many of these songs – has brought all his skill to the mixing desk, giving Mancini’s fluent, elegant vocal line all the air and space it needs to soar above the tasteful, sympathetic arrangements of Jorge Calandrelli. “I’ve Loved These Days” is a breath of fresh air in a musical climate that is so often hell-bent on over embellishment and extravagance. Perfect.

CD Review – Taeko, Voice

29 Jun

Taeko sings “What are you doing the rest of your life?” from her previous album, One Love

Voice: Taeko's new album - multiple influences knock sparks off each other

Take a talented young Japanese singer, transplant her to New York in her formative musical years, immerse her in what is probably the world’s richest jazz scene, then stand back and listen to all those influences collide, knocking sparks off each other. That’s the story of Taeko Fukao’s career so far, and the result is a fascinating blend of bebop and scat, underscored at times by a poignant serenity fired by her native folk heritage, and at others by the smooth, tasteful sheen that defines the best of modern, mainstream jazz vocalists.

Taeko’s new album, Voice, is a vibrant patchwork of styles that reveals, above all, the passion with which she has explored the range of the jazz idiom. In some ways, it’s a showcase for the benefits of intense study – and just occasionally, the impact is almost overwhelming as she tears up a furious-paced “On A Clear Day” with the dexterity of Ella in her prime, or launches into the bebop delights of the Monk/Hawkins/Hendricks number “I Mean You”, recalling Annie Ross or Cleo Laine at the peak of their vocal powers.

Then she shifts tone and mood with a sublime rendition of the 1940s Japanese ballad “Soochow Serenade” and later, with the self-penned “Spring Nocturne”. Think Sade, with attitude. For all the pace and energy in the surrounding numbers, these are the most effective moments on the album: passages of reflection and melancholy in which a softer, mellow timbre is allowed to flourish on a more burnished melodic line, taken to the limit on Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes”.

This is where Taeko sounds genuinely at home, in the telling of stories, and not least on a subtle, swinging, modernised “Biwako”, a folk song about the Japanese lake near her birthplace at Shiga. Doug Richardson’s melodica solo comes unexpectedly, adding yet another flavour to the music and reflecting Taeko’s confidence in choosing musicians who can complement her eclectic vision with considerable ease: Richardson also plays drums, with Greg Lewis on the organ, guitarist Kevin McNeal, pianist Lou Rainone, and bass player Gaku Takanashi. All have their moments to shine – a sure sign of a generous vocalist.

Such is her versatility that the overall effect is sometimes like being strafed by a benign scattergun loaded with different styles. All of which makes the album’s title more appropriate. She shares one of her most promising vocal qualities – the ability to be part of the band rather than just the singer out front – with the greats. Taeko veers from the soulful funk of the opening track, Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” (lyrics by one of her mentors Juanita Fleming) to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”, using her sound in an assertive, challenging way without straying into aggression.

Her phrasing and diction are impeccable, with interesting nuances generated by the occasional hint of an accent rarely heard in jazz. It’s 12 years since she answered the call of the Big Apple. They’ve been well spent and the city has served her well. But if this album is anything to go by, Taeko’s horizons are set for rapid expansion. There’s a big jazz world out there and it’s beckoning an unusual and singular talent.

CD Review – Peggy Duquesnel: Summertime Lullaby

20 May

Summertime Lullaby: tasteful listening for a sultry evening

Here in the UK, on the first evening of the year that could remotely be called sultry, Peggy Duquesnel’s latest album, Summertime Lullaby, makes for a classy hour on the terrace. The California-based singer has come up with some smooth arrangements for a clutch of well loved jazz standards, interspersed with four of her own compositions including the languid title track, which sets the scene for a thoroughly enjoyable set.

An upbeat “My Romance” swings along thanks to Duquesnel’s nifty work at the keyboard – she’s also an accomplished jazz pianist (she later lets fly with a free-flowing instrumental, “On Green Dolphin Street” and a cool “Mack the Knife”) – leading easily into another of her own songs, an elegant tribute to a long relationship, “In the Quiet Hours”. “Drivin’ Blues” will give a wry laugh to anyone who knows the bumper-to-bumper frustrations of the homeward commute, especially when there’s a date waiting at the end.

Duquesnel has assembled a sympathetic, fluent band – guitarists Grant Geissman and Mike Higgins, bass players Jim DeJulio and Ernie Nunuz, and drummers Kendall Kay and Dave Owens – who presumably take turns in the trio although they aren’t credited on individual tracks. Between them they generate a warm, sophisticated tone that’s epitomised in a boldly phrased “Fly Me to the Moon” and another instrumental, Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train”.

The album is dedicated to Duquesnel’s husband and culminates in a touching, spare version of “Stay as Sweet as You Are”, the perfect sign-off at the end of a tasteful journey around what is obviously a very personal musical landscape. It’s a perfect soundtrack for the magic hour, as evening turns to night.