Tag Archives: Female Jazz Singers

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.

Book Review: Bloody Mary, Mary Coughlan

13 Oct

She’s Bad: Mary Coughlan sings up a storm at the recent Tribute to Kirsty MacColl in London

Bloody Mary: not your average showbiz autobiography

If Holiday, Piaf and Garland wrote the torch-singer’s handbook between them, Irish siren Mary Coughlan has spent the best part of her 54 years doing her utmost to surpass to their collective example and write the final chapter.

But despite her best efforts at self-destruction, she has come through the requisite abused childhood, the drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide attempt, psychiatric treatment and hospitalisation, the car crashes (marital and literal) and dodgy recording contracts to emerge as one of the genre’s most magnificent interpreters: a genuine survivor who, in those darkly wry Kirsty MacColl lyrics that she nails so instinctively, has “been an awful woman all my life”. And who has also, with the great torch-singer’s alchemy, transformed that ‘awfulness’ into the sublime ability to hold her audience entranced as she spins her musical tales, with their self-referential undertones, in a voice like honeyed whiskey poured over gravel.

Coughlan’s autobiography – Bloody Mary, My Story (Hachette, published on 4th November) – could have been just another misery memoir. Instead, it’s a raw, often bawdy and rollicking, clear-eyed look at the several lives she’s packed into half a century.

From the prologue, in which she is sharing the hearse with her mother’s coffin and issues a last, desperate plea for a way to take control of the chaos, to the domesticity and gentle optimism of the closing pages, a remarkable lack of bitterness and self-pity is one of the book’s most compelling qualities.

The journey to sobriety requires the ransacking of some pretty appalling memories, but there are also countless high spots and occasional passages of almost Utopian tranquillity. Who would have thought, for example, that the hell-raising Mary who blazes her way across the music business was also a one-time macrobiotic fanatic drifting through a commune-style existence in the dwindling wake of the hippy movement?

The House of Ill Repute: experience and circumstance strike sparks

Coughlan never shirks responsibility for her own behaviour, least of all in the heartbreaking – and frustrating, for everybody who has ever fallen under the spell of her voice or worked hard to make it heard – passages that deal with her alcohol intake and its impact on her children. But it’s always clear that to a great extent, this is a shared responsibility. The sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the shadowy grandfather and uncle who stalk the early pages, her mother’s textbook denial, and the relentless beatings meted out by her father (there is ultimately rapprochement, forgiveness, a coming to terms) were surely the triggers for teenaged Mary’s break for freedom, her flight to London, and a restless spirit that, even as others spotted her considerable singing talent, would find ever more ingenious ways to undermine and waste it.

Given the amount of time she’s spent under the influence of one recreational substance or another, it’s a wonder that Coughlan can still find her way through the lyrics of a song, let alone recall the finer details of such a roller-coaster life with such clarity. Her professional breakthrough came in 1985, with an invitation to appear on The Late Late Show. Her spontaneous acapella rendition of “Strange Fruit” remains one of the programme’s watershed moments, blasting her into the nation’s consciousness as a fascinating interpreter of lyrics who could stake a claim to her own territory where jazz, folk and blues and meet. Even by that stage, she’d lived a hell of a life and, by her own admission, was hardly prepared for the kind of exposure, expectations and above all, business decisions that come with such rapid stardom.

However – always cunning when it came to camouflaging her dependencies (at one point, she kept the vodka hidden behind a life ring on the seafront close to her home; the book is peppered with such darkly humorous anecdotes) – she found a niche in Ireland’s cultural set, even trying her hand at film acting in Neil Jordan’s High Spirits, and soon found a loyal international audience as a singer. Coughlan’s descriptions of how outward appearances were so at variance with her inner turmoil go well beyond the usual triumph-over-tragedy truisms of the average showbiz autobiography.

Equally, Bloody Mary is a fascinating account of the resilience of a great talent, and how difficult it is to sustain a level of success in an industry that is notoriously difficult to navigate. Personal troubles aside, Coughlan has endured most of the clichéd setbacks familiar to any performer who’s survived beyond their first 10 minutes in the spotlight.

And she clearly is a survivor, indomitable in spite of herself, finally at peace with her talent and, as she says, now singing some of the best material she has ever performed: bleak, Brechtian torch songs that resonate with grim wit, longing and, yes indeed, hope. Bloody Mary offers a powerful explanation of how the clash of experience and circumstance strikes something unique in a singer’s voice and enhances the revelatory quality of the lyrics she sings.

The House of Ill Repute, Coughlan’s most recent album, is being re-released to coincide with the publication of her autobiography, complete with new tracks.

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.

Review – Tammy Weis: Where I Need to Be

26 Apr

Where I Need to Be: every word given its due

There must be something in Canada’s water. Diana Krall and Michael Bublé are just the cream of a crop of exceptional jazz singers from across the Atlantic who have led something of a global invasion over the last decade or so.

To be honest, I have always found something Krall’s style a bit laconic and chilly, while respecting her tremendous musicality and technique. And giving in to the temptation to categorise that I criticise so frequently elsewhere in the music industry, I must admit that I turned to Vancouver-born Tammy Weis expecting to hear something in a similar vein.

I was soon disabused. With the exception of a pensive reinvention of Lennon and McCartney’s “Help” – an unlikely candidate for a ballad, but it works wonderfully well here – Where I Need to Be (TW2010) finds Weis pouring her life-tales into a delicate patchwork of self-penned songs. Now living in London, she has produced a taking-stock album in which nostalgia and regret are evenly balanced by optimism and poignant musical snapshots.

Tammy Weis explains why she included “Help” on the album, and sings it

For several tracks, she joins forces with pianist/composer Tom Cawley, and their songs provide the album’s most intimate, emotional high points, book-ending it with two elegant, beautifully accompanied numbers, “I Kept Going” and “Heading Home”. There is texture along the way, most notably the Latin beat of “Everyone But Me”, with Weis’s lyrics a dry Martini short of self-pity, and the shimmering “I’ll Spend Forecer”. She swings too, throwing down the gauntlet with “Don’t Want to Fall in Love Again”, co-written with Terry Britten, an articulate account of teetering on the brink in the best traditions of the great American songbook.

“I love delving into my mind and imagination, which can be scary,” says Weis, suggesting that the writing might not be as easy as her fluid interpretations make it sound. “But the song at the end is my reward for expressing what’s inside.”

Weis’s voice is assured and true, just a hint of hardness cutting through when the lyric demands. She plays deftly with the melody without ever sacrificing clarity – every word is given its due. The band is impeccable – Al Cherry on guitar, Arnie Somogyi on bass and Seb de Krom on drums, with several guest players including steel guitarist B. J. Cole (particularly yearning on “Where Did the Time Go”, an end-of-the-affair ballad), and pianist Julian Joseph (“All Because of You”) whom Weis credits as her prime motivator for making an album of original songs.

Review – Gabriele Tranchina: A Song of Love’s Color

19 Mar

Gabriele Tranchina: something of an enigma

What a queue-jumper Gabriele Tranchina turns out to be. A pile of CDs sits accusingly on my disk awaiting critical attention. I’d been sampling and tasting here and there, planning an orderly assault. But on Monday, Tranchina’s new album – A Song of Love’s Color (Jazzheads JH1176) – landed fresh from New York, inveigled its way onto my player and has been sitting there ever since, spinning an insistent spell, and demanding listen after listen.

Think Lambert, Hendricks and Ross meet Pink Martini, with a dash of Astrid Gilberto, a streak of Ute Lemper, a hint of Mina and a sense of Anita Baker, and you can begin – just about – to anticipate the startling effect of Tranchina’s voice as she juggles rhythms, styles and languages to create a constantly shifting mood. One minute you’re chilling to late night jazz, the next you’re swept up in a Jobim samba, before being caught in the headlights of a hypnotic, almost Weill-ish lieder.

All of which makes her a bit of a marketer’s nightmare – and precisely the kind of performer that Art of the Torch Singer loves. The cocktail of jazz, world music, vocalese and chant might well be overwhelming if it wasn’t for the relaxed consistency of the band, led by Tranchina’s husband Joe Vincent – who wrote several of the tracks and is responsible for the cool, spare arrangements. Tranchina clearly thrives on the freedom this gives her to swing between techniques and tones.

The album kicks off with a Fugain/Delanoë chanson, “Chante Comme Si Tu Devais Mourir Demain”, which pretty much describes Tranchina’s mission. The title track follows, revealing her dexterity with a melody and some alluring phrasing. Later, a traditional Hindu prayer provides the basis for a swirling, syncopated chant that also includes a brief rap, “Asato Maa (Sat Chit Ananda)”, and a Spanish lullaby – “Duérmete Niño Bonito” – has an authentic, shuffling last-dance-of-the-night atmosphere. “Siehst du Mich” – a poem by Else Lasker-Schüler, set to music by Joe Vincent – concludes the album on a beautifully sombre, brooding note.

A Song of Love’s Color, mixed by Joe Vincent and Randy Klein, and mastered by Gene Paul, was recorded in New York in the summer of 2008. Its release is long overdue. Tranchina herself – German-born and New York-raised – remains something of an enigma, despite the stylish art work on the sleeve. A trawl around Youtube and MySpace yields nothing in the way of clips.

Her people should do something about that fast, because once you’ve heard this you’ll want to know more about an artist who clearly has something different to offer the homogenised world of modern popular music.