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Album Review: Miriam Waks – Waksing Lyrical

10 May

O gente da minha terra: Miriam Waks in fadista mode

Waksing Lyrical is an elegant, sophisticated debut album from Sydney’s Miriam Waks. Light jazz inflections mingle in an intimate, lounge-inspired atmosphere as she tours an eclectic  set of standards, chansons and a couple of quaint, unexpected choices.

Why Suffer: Miriam Waks collaborates with Coptic Soldier

There’s no doubt Waks can deliver a genuinely contemporary sound when she has to. Check out her collaboration with Coptic Soldier on “Why Suffer” for evidence. So when I say that in some ways, the overall effect of Waksing Lyrical is disarmingly old-fashioned, I mean it in the most complimentary way: her diction is perfect, regardless of the language she’s singing in (and her linguistic skills are nicely showcased). You get every word, which is rare in an age of overwhelming production values. And there is an air of traditional, pared-back simplicity about the whole project that is utterly refreshing.

Kerrie Biddell has done a discreet job on the mixing desk, leaving plenty of air around Waks and her accomplished trio – pianist Michael Bartolemi, Ben Waples on double bass and drummer James Waples (they’re joined by her uncle, Nathan, on cello for “La Vie en Rose”).

Waksing Lyrical: an elegant debut for the Sydney singer

Waks has a lilting soprano voice that really tugs the heartstrings on the ballads. But she also throws in some earthy grit and nuanced comedy on more lived-in numbers like “Peel me a Grape”, “Black Coffee”, “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and the suitably torchy “I Keep Going Back to Joe’s”, phrasing with confidence and clarity. She attacks “There’s Gotta be Something Better Than This” with restrained bravado.

The Portuguese and Spanish numbers – “Chega de Saudade” and “Veinte Años”, in particular throb with dignified emotion, and she has a sweet, wistful approach to “La Vie en Rose”. Further proof of her stylistic range is provided by the Sephardic song, “Si Veriash”, on which she reveals real vocal ease and flexibility.

As I’m writing this Eurovision 2011 is fast approaching, so the presence of “Al di La” rates a special mention. Although Betty Curtis failed to win the 1961 contest for Italy with this stately, sentimental ballad, it became a signature song for Connie Francis. Dated it might be but here, dusted off and polished up by Waks, it gleams afresh, full of yearning and regret for what might have been.

Al di La: Betty Curtis sings at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1961

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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.

Adele: a Torch Singer for the 21st Century

7 May

Someone Like You: Adele comes of age as a 21st-century torch singer at the Brit Awards 2011

When BBC Breakfast tackled the subject of Adele’s universal appeal and meteoric rise yesterday, the most enlightened comments came not from the ‘experts’ on the sofa but from the people interviewed on the street. One by one, they identified, easily and succinctly why her voice and lyrics strike such a chord with an extraordinary range of listeners. Back in the studio, meanwhile, the conversation got bogged down in sales figures and clichés, and an awkward segue into Cheryl Cole’s appointment as an X Factor judge in the States. What nobody identified as the root of Adele’s success is that she is, above all, the epitome of the torch singer – one of the finest of her generation – whose lyrics, combined with a voice of real range and depth, unravel the epic personal emotions of everyday heartbreak.

In the following article, a version of which appears in the current issue of Theatre & Performance magazine (with some unfortunate graphical errors), I have tried to analyse the eternal popularity of the torch singer, placing singers like Adele, Marianne Faithfull, Justin Bond and Mari Wilson – who here gives a splendid masterclass on the art of torch-singing – in this great tradition.

Marianne Faithfull: grande dame of torch singers (photo by Patrick Swirc)

Adele is dominating the pop charts with her lush, wounded ballads. Tracie Bennett is burning up the West End with her visceral performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow. Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses and High Heels is a useful reminder that there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to unravelling the nuances of lyrics we thought we knew so well.

Yes, the torch song – and our appetite for its cathartic powers – is alive and well. And singers who can deliver one effectively, honestly and with integrity, will always exert a special hold on our broken hearts.

Perhaps it’s the drama: the singer alone in the spotlight, spinning a tale of loss, abandonment, loneliness and longing. Regardless of the genre – rock and pop, country, jazz, cabaret, folk or musical theatre – it’s one of the most totemic images in show business. And it’s served its exponents well since the term ‘torch singer’ was first coined in the 1920s to describe a brace of singers who plied their trade on Broadway, in revues and after-hours nightclubs, and in the early radio and recording studios, specialising in melancholy numbers that struck an emotional chord in the listener that went beyond mere sentiment.

These days, only specialists and enthusiasts will give a second thought to performers like Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Fanny Brice Libby Holman or Lee Wiley. But they were all, in their way, trailblazers for the torch singers who have followed in their wake, and not just the great triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf; three women whose influence on technique, delivery and style continue to resonate with many performers half a century and more after their premature deaths.

Piaf’s place at the top of the tree is a useful reminder that the French chanson has always been a key influence on the concept of the torch song. Brice’s signature song “My Man” – still one of the darkest and most brutal examples of this type of lyric – started life as “Mon Homme”, a lament popularised in Parisian music-halls by the legendary Mistinguett.

Broadway shows have also contributed immeasurably to the evolution of the torch-song, ever since Helen Morgan perched on a piano and delivered a tremulous “Bill” in Showboat, and Libby Holman growled “Moanin’ Low” to a delightedly scandalised audience in The Little Show just before the Wall Street Crash unleashed the Great Depression.

Many great torch songs now recognised as standards started life as stage numbers – a tradition that has been continued by great composers and lyricists, including Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman and most recently, Jason Robert Brown.

But broken hearts have also always provided rich material for song writers and, as jazz and big band music moved over to make way for mainstream pop music in the 1950s, they discovered an even broader, global medium to explore the darker side of love. And so the torch was picked up by pop singers like Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey and Elkie Brooks, superstars Streisand and Minnelli, and later by Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connor and a string of rising 21st century stars including Adele and Amy Winehouse.

It’s no coincidence that the iconic status of many of the great torch singers has been assisted by their propensity for living in a way that seemed to perfectly reflect the lyrics to which they brought such insight and emotional substance. Even today, our response to the unique vocal qualities of Piaf, Judy and Billie is complicated by our knowledge of the personal price they each paid for success and affirmation by audiences – and a music industry – who perhaps did not always have their best interests at heart.

How else to explain the contemporary appeal of a play that focuses on the traumas of Garland’s final appearances at The Talk of the Town? In End of the Rainbow, Tracie Bennett has been a revelation as the self-destructing star, peeling back the layers of internal conflict and drug-fogged delusion one by one. And it’s in the songs that her characterisation is rooted, conjuring the essence of Garland with “The Man That Got Away” in a way that’s had the audience mesmerised night after night.

Even playing these women in dramatised accounts of their lives exerts a tremendous physical toll that gives an insight into the close relationship between the torch singer and the material that is her stock in trade. Piaf, Pam Gems’s play, pulls no punches in its depiction of the way the singer’s voice absorbed all the abuse the Little Sparrow inflicted on it, while still emerging powerful as a bell from her wracked body. For Elaine Paige, who played the role in 1992, it was a painful revelation.

“There was something about her I felt akin to, a kind of obsessive quality,” she once recalled in an interview with this writer. “I find something and I get involved and get hooked and it becomes a bit of an obsession. I didn’t realise it was going to be quite as exhausting. I was very fulfilled and very drained. Every night. I’ve had problems with my knees ever since, from walking around with bowed legs, bent double! She isn’t the easiest character to play without suffering a bit yourself.”

There are occasional reminders that self-destructive tendencies in a singer can still fuel an uncomfortable fascination, particularly when an artist seems completely absorbed by the experiences they are singing about. Look at Amy Winehouse who has long since proved herself one of the great torch singers of our age, despite a back-story that evokes the darker excesses of Billie Holiday or Judy Garland.

Winehouse could draw some inspiration from another trailblazer, Marianne Faithfull, who has long since emerged from the chaos of her own tabloid years to become a stately grande dame of dramatic song. Faithfull’s voice testifies to self-inflicted ravages but there is a beauty and an honesty in her lyrical interpretations that remains utterly arresting.

“I’ve always loved story songs,” she says. “I suppose it’s part of my acting thing, to get into character and live the story with the person. But I think it’s got stronger, probably because I’ve got a bit more compassion now, for myself and others!”

While torch singing – and the image of the torch singer – is primarily associated with female performers, there have also been great, intuitive male interpreters capable of twisting the heartstrings in this way. From Brel, Sinatra and Scott Walker to Marc Almond and Ian Shaw, great male vocalists have also demonstrated a way with desolate lyrics that come into their own at midnight.

For New York transgender singer Justin Bond, who prefers the pronoun ‘v’, the best torch songs achieve their power through evocation.

“Great torch singers create a safer space for us to address our desires and heartaches,” v says. “We get to live our pain through them. When singing a torch song, my mission as a singer has always been to reveal ideas and emotions that would allow my audiences to experience things in a communal way that they might ordinarily allow themselves to deal with only in private – thereby validating them and their experiences of loss, anger, loneliness or desire.”

In the End: Justin Bond spins a torch song at Joe’s Pub in New York

But is it really necessary to have lived to the extremes suggested by so many torch song lyrics? Go to a gig by any of our finest contemporary torch singers – Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Ian Shaw, Antony Hegarty, Martha or Rufus Wainwright – and at some point in the evening you are guaranteed an emotional workout as prescribed by Bond. But in most cases, the emotional realism that they generate with a particular song is founded on an understanding of the lyric that taps into their own human experiences rather than a 24-hour commitment to excess.

“I don’t think ‘good acting’ alone can put across a torch song,” says Bond. “I was pretty much in touch with my emotions as a child, and I think I was capable of tearing up a Jacques Brel tune even in my teens. You’re never too young to understand great sadness OR sexual desire, trust [me].”

Bond cites Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” as a great torch number – “written from the perspective of a louche gay man coming of age in very tenuous times” – but says the torch song is in good hands with modern song writers.

“I like some of Jarvis Cocker’s songs. “This is Hardcore” is a great torch song,” v says. “Antony [Hegarty] writes beautiful torch songs and Rufus Wainwright has written some lovely examples. My record, Dendrophile, is coming out in the States on April 5th and includes covers of what might be considered torch songs – “Superstar”, “Diamonds and Rust” and Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark”.

“The fact that they are called ‘torch songs’ implies a burning,” adds Bond. “The greatest loves and strongest desires come from a deeply spiritual need. Great torch songs evoke a kind of dissatisfaction caused by uncontrollable, even unwanted, desires that aren’t being satisfied.”

The true torch singer, then, is defined by a capacity to touch us, regardless of sexuality or age, and the extravagance of many of the lyrics they interpret is a disguise for deep, shared, ordinary emotions. A great exponent gives us permission to acknowledge those emotions. As long as we need that, the torch singer’s future is assured.

Torch Singing Masterclass With Mari Wilson

Mari Wilson: you can be singing about all kinds of unhappiness (photo by John Haxby)

Choose your torch songs carefully. I was 15 when I first saw Julie London singing “Cry Me A River” in The Girl Can’t Help It. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then when I started gigging properly in 1981, I was driving along in my Austin A40 and finally it came on the radio. I started singing it in my sets and it felt right – and it still does. It’s such a well-crafted song. Every time I sing it, it’s like being on a football pitch. I’ll decide to take it over there, or stay here in the middle. That’s why you never get bored singing a song of this quality. A great torch song needs that breadth and depth.

Use your experience to tell the story. It’s lovely when people write and tell me that my recording is the best version. But to be honest, I think I sing it much better now because I’ve lived twice as long – and I’m a much better singer! Back then, I hadn’t had my heart broken in a major, adult way. You can only sing from your own experience.

It isn’t all about age. Listen to Adele. She’s only 21 but she’s obviously singing from a deep hurt. Or Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You” at 14. Or Amy Winehouse singing “Love is a Losing Game”. You can have the experience to put across a torch lyric at any age. It’s about being able to be honest and vulnerable. You can’t be cynical, you have to be willing to open yourself up, because actually, when you’re singing a torch song, you’re admitting something about yourself and what the lyric means to you.

Write your own material. Trying to find the right songs is difficult. You have to be interested in the lyrics over and over again. I’ve been writing a lot of my own songs [Mari Wilson’s one-woman musical, The Love Thing, had its debut at the Leicester Square Theatre last November]. A lot of the time when you’re singing, you’re also acting. But you have to find an element of truth in the material.

Be your own age. I’m singing “My Love” at the moment and when you’re in your 50s, it’s all about how kind and dependable your love is. Because when you get older, that’s what you want! Friendship and kindness really matter. Of course sex is important but there’s more to it than being great in the sack. And pop music has always been about sex and young people. Jessie J’s “The Price Tag” and “Do it Like a Dude” are fantastic – but where is there to go after that? You need romance and love.

Understand the lyrics. Mick Jagger’s lyrics for “Wild Horses” were written about his relationship with Marianne Faithfull. They were relevant then, to a young person. But they’re equally relevant to me today – “I watched you suffer a dull aching pain…”, “Let’s do some living after we die…” – you can be singing about all kinds of unhappiness. That’s what’s so good about the words: there are so many possible interpretations and they can all have meaning, regardless of what stage you’re at.

Sing according to your venue. It really does make a difference. We did The Love Thing in the basement at Leicester Square, without a proper sound system and nothing between me and the audience. In contrast, I’ve just sung at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, which was really lovely. There’s something special about a larger room when the lights go down and the spotlight’s on you. You have some help creating the mood and it helps you to sing a torch song better. Equally, you need to be able to get up and sing at a party – like Judy Garland or, I’m told, Amy Winehouse who, by all accounts, is extraordinary in those private settings. I once sang “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” at a party. It was song that we played at my mum’s funeral, where it had everyone in a heap, so it’s a tricky one for me. But it was also very special to be able to move people in such an intimate space.

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 – Helena Blackman: The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein

16 Mar

Helena Blackman sings “If I Loved You” live at The Kings Theatre, Portsmouth

Helena Blackman: pretty in pink and commanding of voice

Helena Blackman might have been the runner-up in the BBC’s 2005 quest to find a Maria for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revival of The Sound of Music. But as her debut album, The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein, reveals, she was never going to settle for perennial bridesmaid status.

The diversity of Blackman’s CV since her television talent show days is telling, and suggests that coming first is far from everything. Connie Fisher was such a quintessential Maria that she was the only possible winner – and consequently seems destined to play the role on the road forever. Similarly, it’s hard to see I’d Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger playing anything other than variations on her hearty Nancy, while runner-up Jessie Buckley has, like Blackman, developed a potentially stellar career as a singer and actor based on the breadth and variety of her talents.

That said, I must confess that I approached The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein with somewhat muted enthusiasm, simply because there are more than half a century’s worth of similar anthologies out there. Do we really need another one?

Well yes, it turns out that we do. Blackman’s producers, Neil Eckersley and Paul Spicer, and conductor Mike Dixon, have treated her to a substantial orchestra – much bigger than you’ll find in the average West End pit today. And yet the playing of Richard Rodgers’ soaring melodies is so restrained and sympathetic that the songs emerge as chamber pieces, clear and nuanced, with Blackman in commanding form as she traces their underlying emotional content with obvious pleasure, as if she’s discovering treasure in each line.

With a pure soprano voice that would easily straddle the divide between operetta and musical theatre, she’s something of a throwback to a golden age of pre-pop performers who knew all about lyrical interpretation and melodic lines.

At the same time, and supported here by some sharp, pared down arrangements, she’s quite capable of giving a refreshing twist to familiar material without resorting to contemporary vocal gimmicks. “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” becomes an unexpectedly modern, gentle piece of introspection, for example, and the wistful “Love Look Away” is beautifully reinvented as a stately ballad, delivered with controlled power.

If the track list contains no real surprises, the real delight is to hear Hammerstein’s words and phrases delivered with such crystal eloquence. There are duets with Jonathan Ansell (“I Have Dreamed”) and Daniel Boys (a profoundly romantic “People Will Say We’re in Love”). The album is book-ended by numbers from The Sound of Music,“I Have Confidence” and that ripe, wise old anthem, “Climb Every Mountain” – perhaps not an obvious choice for a singer whose voice rings with youthful clarity but it’s an unbeatable show stopper to end on and Blackman proves herself more than equal to the task.

In between, other highlights include characterful stalwarts like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair”, “Some Enchanted Evening” and a splendid “The Gentleman is a Dope”.

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.