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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

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.