Tag Archives: Female Jazz Singers

Album review – Anita Wardell: The Road

11 Feb

“But Not For Me”: Anita Wardell in recital with Ed Cherry (not on The Road)

The Road: Anita Wardell's lightness and flexibility of touch deserve a wider audience

The Road: Anita Wardell’s lightness and flexibility of touch deserve a wider audience

For every Jamie Cullum there are a dozen highly talented British jazz singers who beaver away on the circuit to the delight of the cognoscenti, making critically acclaimed albums and commanding the respect of their peers without the benefit of a profile that might bring a wider audience to hear them.

Anita Wardell is a case in point. With a career dating back to the 1990s, she has enjoyed more than two decades of success. Last year, she was pronounced Best Jazz Vocalist at the British Jazz Awards, leading a shortlist that indicated the sheer depth of talent in this diverse field (Claire Martin, Liane Carroll, Val Wiseman and Clare Teal).

She has earned an international reputation for the scat-singing which has become her trademark, as well as the sensitivity with which she handles ballads and standards, discovering fresh nuances in familiar lines with the lightness and flexibility of her touch. She is one of the most innovative performers on the scene, but she could probably stroll through the Soho heartland of London jazz unrecognised.

Perhaps she’s happy with that. But given the quality of her recent album The Road, it seems a crime that her name isn’t more widely known beyond the glass walls of the jazz world. And I say that as someone who isn’t the greatest fan of scatting. But only a tin ear could fail to appreciate her musicality and subtlety in this department – by no means the only skill on show on this exciting record.

Belying the rather bleak and wintry scene on the album’s cover, The Road ripples like a sophisticated summer evening, particularly in Wardell’s nimble treatment of “Frevo em Maceio” and “Voca e eu”, both redolent of warm Brazilian nights, and her distinctive handling of an old favourite, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”.

A Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays mash-up  of “Travels” and “The Road”, with Wardell’s own lyrics, sets the scene for a journey across some nicely-chosen terrain, which includes a sensuous “You’re My Thrill”, Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman” and a thrilling take on “Without a Song”.

The highlight of the album is “With Every Breath I Take”, which Wardell turns into an elegant, thoughtful torch song. The way she holds the note on the word ‘break’ is a lesson in the virtue of restraint over grandstanding vocal gymnastics.

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Album review – Kaz Simmons: Signs

8 Feb

For the Love of the Big L: Signs is a scintillating love letter to London

Signs: 'quirky' is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

Signs: ‘quirky’ is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

There are two stars of the show vying for top honours on Kaz Simmons’s new album Signs. The first is the singer/songwriter’s deceptively girlish voice, which weaves its way through this cycle of city tales with all the variety and flexibility of a seasoned jazz artist. The second is London itself, which emerges as an irresistible influence on her writing and is effectively the central character in a concept album that is far too mature in its themes and textures to be categorised with a glib ‘quirky’ label.

Simmons has raided the rich canyons of psychedelia for a sound that is also flecked with jazz, folk and show-tune references. The result is a constantly shifting musical landscape that evokes the sweeping pomp of symphonic prog rock one minute, a 1960s Marianne-Faithfull-Fitzrovia vibe the next. There’s even a hint of Sondheim when a slightly sinister organ undercuts a few bars of “London Loves” and briefly conjures Sweeney Todd.

This eclectic mixture might have overwhelmed the ambitions of a less assured musician. But Simmons has more than a decade’s experience as a session guitarist behind her, and this has clearly fuelled her dextrous ability to build unexpected bridges between different styles and techniques.

Take “I Know You”, which spreads like a pool of sunshine from its initial introspective folk idiom to an almost cinematic pan across the London skyline, encapsulating the frustratingly thin line between loneliness and a sense of belonging that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in the British capital.

Similar tropes weave their way through “Your Love” and “For the Love of the Big L”, in which Simmons could equally well be singing about her intrinsically flawed relationship with the city as about an unreliable lover.  “We’re friendly people, honestly…” she insists, as her poetic lyrics pick their way through the complicated litter of urban humanity.

Occasionally, as on “London Loves” or the title track, people emerge from the cityscape – a parade of paramours with varying eye colours, each one more feckless than the last, and out-of-sync couples.

She has surrounded herself with a vibrant and sympathetic band, including guitarist Martin Kolarides, Will Bartlett (who is responsible for that edgy organ), drummer Tim Giles and Riaan Vosloo on bass.

The only cover is a sweetly melancholy take on the Pee Wee King pop classic “You Belong to Me”, which is calming balm after the frenetic, always-rewarding drama of the previous eight songs.

Signs is an album to have ringing in your headphones next time you set out for a stroll around the big L. Any other city might do at a pinch, but it is essentially a scintillating love letter to a place that exasperates and enthrals this singular talent (and anyone else who knows it) in equal measure.

Album review – Gwyneth Herbert: The Sea Cabinet

5 Jun

Gwyneth Herbert talks about the genesis of The Sea Cabinet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album review – Liane Carroll: Ballads

1 May

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

Ballads: grown-up standards delivered with class

Ballads: grown-up standards delivered with class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 Dec

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

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

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

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

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

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

Album Review – Christine Tobin: Sailing to Byzantium

29 Jul

So Far Away: not Yeats but Carole King, from Christine Tobin’s previous album Tapestry Unravelled

Sailing to Byzantium: Christine Tobin rescues Yeats from memories of academic overload

The rich source material for Christine Tobin’s latest album positively encourages metaphor, so here goes. Sailing to Byzantium is a vibrant, irresistible lake. There’s nothing to be gained from standing suspiciously on its shore.  Take a deep breath, plunge in, and let the water draw you down into a musical world of burnished colours, intriguing shades, spine-chilling dangers and soothing sub-aquatic glades.

Tobin’s audacity in setting 13 of W. B. Yeats’s poems to fluid and spacious jazz arrangements pays off on every level.  The poet’s characteristic themes of memory, time and place, unattainable love, the artist’s lot, and mythology shine through, heightened but never unnecessarily embellished by some brilliant ensemble playing.

Tobin isn’t the first composer to set Yeats to music. Herbert Hughes, for example, wrote a rollicking tune for “Down by the Sally Gardens”, most recently recorded by Clare Teal for her album, Hey Ho. But Sailing to Byzantium is on a much more ambitious scale. And how Tobin pulls it off.

It would be invidious to single out any band member; plaudits to Liam Noble (piano), Phil Robson (guitar), Gareth Lockrane (flute), Kate Shortt (cello) and Dave Whitford (double bass). With their support, Tobin’s warm timbre wraps itself around the shimmering imagery of Yeats’s verse, taking it into a new and very different space while staying true to the original work.

Like Tobin, I studied Yeats at school, and was so absorbed by the texture and subjects of his poetry that I later seized the opportunity to immerse myself in it at university. Analytical overload was inevitable and it’s been many years since I revisited the glories of poems such as “Long-legged Fly” and “The Wild Swans at Coole”. Tobin’s inspired handling of the material has sent me scurrying to the bookshelf and reaching out for a familiar, yellowing volume as if it was an old friend.

From the sparkling Joni Mitchell-ish  guitar intro to the opening track, “When You are Old” to the elegiac tones of actor Gabriel Byrne (who taught at Tobin at school in Dublin) reading “The White Birds” to the backdrop of rising waves and Tobin’s wordless, keening chant, Sailing to Byzantium commands attention. The production is fresh and crisp.

There is turbulent beauty, not least in the cacophonous climax to “The Second Coming”. Characters spring to life, greatly assisted by the sparkling arrangements. “The Song of Wondering Aengus” and “The Fisherman” – that paean to a simple, idealised reader – bristle with energy. Some of the songs are haunted and haunting in equal measure:  ghosts gather and whisper as “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markievicz” conjures a room populated by lost friends, to exquisitely poignant effect, building to the sinister revelation of knowledge that’s come too late. An artistic triumph, brimming with integrity.

Album review – Macy Chen: After 75 Years

28 Jul

Languishing Love: Macy Chen’s JazAsia quest pays dividends

 

After 75 Years: Macy Chen’s contribution to the East/West cultural exchange

Macy Chen is living proof that jazz is the most international of musical languages. The Taiwan-born singer soon established herself on the pop scene in her home country after graduating from Soochow University. But having realised that her heart was really in jazz, she headed west to New York in search of new influences that would help her to build on this passion.

A decade later, Chen has released a concept album – After 75 Years – that fuses Chinese and Western jazz traditions in a style she has dubbed ‘jazAsia’. It’s a canny modern take on a phenomenon that actually has its roots in the 1930s. As Chen reveals through a selection of songs from old Shanghai, jazz was a highly popular style of music in the more cosmopolitan cities of pre-Communist China; something that possibly escaped her grandfather, a saxophonist who also left Taiwan to pursue a career as a musician but stayed firmly in the Eastern hemisphere, in Japan.

The album is packaged as an imagined correspondence bridging the 75-year gap between these two wondering spirits (they never knew each other), with a sheaf of letters and photographs for the listener to browse while Chen’s mellow and expressive voice works a rather special spell.

The Shanghai numbers are fascinating in themselves, telling exotic tales of “Unrequited Love” and “The Wandering Mistress” in mandarin. Rather than being an obstacle to the non-speaker, the language becomes an intrinsic element of the music as Chen’s voice blends like an instrument with the rest of her nimble, sophisticated band.

She has also written mandarin lyrics for a handful of American jazz standards – “My Only Love” and a mash-up of “Harlem Fantasia” and the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” – which add an exciting new texture to these familiar tunes.  She is at her most effective in languid, melancholy musical territory: “Reminisce” and “Suzhou Nocturne” both showcase a range that swoops effortlessly across the soprano/alto divide with a blend of sweet, instinctive jazz inflections.

Chen rounds things off with a pair of self-penned songs, “Fly Away” and “Good Night, My Love”, that experiment with tempo and elegant melodic lines, suggesting that her unusual quest is set to pay further dividends as her career develops. JazAsia is full of idiosyncratic possibilities.