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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: 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