Tag Archives: Female Jazz Singers

Album Review: Cæcilie Norby – Arabesque

10 May

The Dead Princess: Cæcilie Norby’s haunting take on Ravel

Arabesque: contemplative and modern treatments of classic melodies, with astringent lyrics

Arabesque is an edgy, moody collection of songs to thrill the musical iconoclast. Classical purists might run for the hills but Danish jazz singer Cæcilie Norby has come up with some extraordinary settings that shed new light on familiar melodies by Rimsky Korsakov, Satie and Debussy, boldly applying her own astringent lyrical interpretations of the stories behind them.

The result is an impressionistic aural feast, punctuated by a burst of funky swing (“Bei mir bist du schoen”), a couple of Michel Legrand tracks and an inspirational take on Abbey Lincoln’s “Wholly Earth”. In short, Norby, who has been a pioneer of modern Nordic music, straddling the choppy territory between jazz and pop with her refusal to be categorised, has sharpened her maverick credentials and come up with an audacious concept. Just when you think you’ve pinned it down, the musical influence on each track shifts into new territory.

“The Dead Princess” takes Ravel’s haunting theme and turns it into an exploration of the character of the composer’s benefactress, Princess Winnaretta de Polignac. His “Pavane”, so evocative in any setting, is transformed into a brooding meditation on the power of music to arouse memories and sensations.

Norby isn’t the first musician tempted to take liberties with Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” – prog rock band Renaissance built an entire album around it in the 1970s – but she treats it with great respect, her Arabian Nights-inspired lyrics swirling among the excellent accompaniment of musicians including pianist Katrine Gislinge, co-producer Lars Danielsson (on bass, cello and organ).

The percussion of Anders Engen and Xavier Devandre-Navarre is a crucial ingredient of Arabesque, fluid and driven, providing a great counterpoint to the fascinating texture of Norby’s voice. There is more than a hint of Berlin cabaret in her timbre – at times, comparisons with Ute Lemper are valid – but her phrasing is always contemplative and modern. Norby is more about the inner monologue than playing to the gallery.

Other highlights include “The Tears of Billie Blue”, a shimmering interpretation of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, and “No Air”, which turns Satie’s Gymnopédie into sultry, delicate soliloquy. There is also a Danish version of Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind” (“Hvirvelvinden”) and a bonus track, “How Oft”, a tribute to the singer’s father, Erik, who composed it. An absorbing landscape of an album.

CD Review: Cynthia Felton – Come Sunday: The Music of Duke Ellington

13 Apr

Cynthia Felton in a sentimental mood: assured torch-singing

Come Sunday: Dr Cynthia Felton's new twist on some Ellington favourites

If you like velvety, elegant jazz, Cynthia Felton’s Come Sunday: The Music of Duke Ellington will be music to your ears. This is emphatically not just another Ellington tribute.

Felton’s trademark is a contemporary R&B accent which gives these familiar and enduring numbers a refreshing new twist. And with a stellar line-up of accompanists including Patrice Rushen, Donald Brown and John Beasley on the piano, and drummers Terri Lynne Carrington and Jeff Tain Watts, it’s a classy piece of work.

Felton, who has a formidable academic pedigree and is artistic director of the Ethnomusicology Library of American Heritage, has produced the album herself with serene assurance. From the start, she shows she means business. A fast and furious “It Don’t Mean a Thing” introduces the accomplished scatting that later graces an easy, fluid take on “Perdido” and, of course, “Take the A Train”.

The first part of the album is all about celebrating the singer as an integral part of the band – another instrument rather than the voice out front. A swirling “Caravan” nods respectfully to the classic Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version but ultimately ploughs a new furrow as Felton kicks against the melody with her own off-beat, contrapuntal line. And with the title track half way through the set, she introduces a gospel influence that is yet another facet of her eclectic musical range.

To be honest, though, my own taste is more inclined to some of the later, midnight-flavoured tracks in which Felton gives herself the space and a lingering tempo to explore the lyrics.

Blessed with a voice of nearly four octaves, she proves herself a sultry torch-singer of considerable merit, with the assistance of Wallace Roney’s moaning trumpet on “I Got it Bad”, and a molten “Sophisticated Lady” that reveals the song’s broken but still beating heart. The last number, “Prelude to a Kiss”, is lifted by Carol Robbins’s harp, endowing it with that slightly melancholy last-dance feeling. Highly recommended.

Concert review: Girl Talk (Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson and Gwyneth Herbert), Mercury Theatre, Colchester, 29th March

30 Mar

Girl Talk: warm, generous, witty and sophisticated

Take three of Britain’s top female vocalists, each with her own distinctive style and a generous supply of sizzling one-liners. Give them the run of the complete songbook of womanhood. Ask them to come up with an entertainment that touches on the complexities of the female condition, offering catharsis for the women in the audience – and little windows of enlightenment for the men. Then sit back and enjoy the chemistry.

Girl Talk‘s I Am Woman, which unites the multiple talents of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson and Gwyneth Herbert, sashayed on to the stage at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester last night and delivered a show that brimmed with warmth, generosity, wit and sophistication, but was also peppered with some searingly emotional moments and bittersweet cynicism.

The new line-up (Herbert now occupies Claire Martin’s old spot) gives the singers a new dynamic to work with, pitching Jungr and Wilson’s hard-earned wisdom against the self-confessed young libertarian and allowing the sassy banter to set the songs up in hilarious ways. But more than anything, it gives them the freedom to show off their individual versatility within the framework of a trio. Between them, they share an abundance of musical gifts.

Barb Jungr: sings from the gut (photo by Steve Ullathorne)

Jungr, as always, sings from the gut. Even when she is ripping up a dubious lyric (the Doris Day number, “A Woman’s Touch” was delivered with many a knowing accent), she finds a way to wring some compelling truth from its remains. Wilson is a sublime song stylist with a voice of considerable range and the ability to give even the most familiar number a freshness that can make you feel you’re hearing the lyrics for the first time. And Herbert’s musicality makes her an endlessly fascinating presence, injecting some real edge with a timbre that veers from her trademark theremin tremelo down to a throaty contralto.

From the minute they launched into “Girls, Girls, Girls” – with the excellent Simon Wallace at the piano, standing in for the indisposed Adrian York – the harmonies were exhilarating. Several numbers were delivered a cappella, with an infectious verve that conveyed just how much fun they were having on stage. “Under My Thumb” was given a typically risqué introduction and liberties were taken with the lyrics of the Bacharach/David classic “Wishin’ and Hopin’”, sticking a stiletto into their dated, submissive message. “Where Do You Go to My Lovely?” and, gloriously reinvented, that bizarre, epic 1982 travelogue “I’ve Never Been to Me”, were given similarly arch treatment.

Mari Wilson: sublime song stylist (picture by John Haxby)

From “Jump the Broomstick” to the joyously anthemic “I Am Woman”, the songs flowed thick and fast, each one delivering its own thrills and surprises. A mash-up of “I’m Every Woman” (Jungr), the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” (with an up tempo Wilson soaring) and the Lisa Stansfield mega hit “All Woman” (Herbert in whisky-and-nicotine mode) was the tumultuous highlight of the second half; the arrangement was exhilarating.

But it wasn’t just about three established singers kicking back and enjoying safety in numbers. Each also had a solo spot and treated us to some superb torch singing. Herbert led the way in the first half with an absorbing take on “The Other Woman”: the mistress materialised in front of us, trapped in the ebb and flow of her private agony. Then Wilson delivered a ravishing “Touch Me in the Morning” that had the audience hanging on every word and, I suspect, banished all thoughts of the haughty Miss Ross. Finally, Jungr tore into “Woman in Love”. Think Piaf at her peak with a dash of Callas in the characterisation, and you’ll get the idea. Streisand has always declined to sing it in her concerts, despite the fact that it was one of her biggest hits, because she doesn’t identify with the lyrics. If she’d been in Colchester last night, she might have found a clue or two.

Gwyneth Herbert: from theremin to throaty contralto

This new Girl Talk is tremendously promising. The arc of the evening is brilliantly set by the different qualities of the three singers. There is work to be done on the links, certainly, and the ‘journey’ through the emotions and facets of life could be more clearly defined. But these are quibbles about an act that is still at its formative stage, with the potential to explore so many possibilities in terms of material and style. As Girl Talk evolves, it will be fascinating to see how their characters evolve within the context of the show, and strike sparks off each other. If these women come to your town, don’t miss the chance to see them. They’re a class act.

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.

CD Review – Tamela D’Amico: Got a Little Story

3 Mar

And I Love Him: D’Amico in the studio, showing off her risky phrasing

Tamela D’Amico is no mere canary or foil for the big band. She has one of those voices that doesn’t sidle shyly up and ask respectfully for your attention. It swoops in and insists that you listen. One minute it’s powerful and keening. The next it’s intimate and conversational, in half-past midnight mode, cards on the table time.

Got a Little Story: the work of a formidable song stylist

Her debut album Got A Little Story is a swinging, fluid collection of standards, punctuated with a bit of Lennon and McCartney, Harry Connick, Jr. and Ann Hampton Callaway – the latter cited by D’Amico in her thank-you notes and clearly a modern inspiration to match the greats of yesteryear who also get a mention.

The whole production exudes a sumptuous glamour thanks to a sizeable orchestra of top-flight instrumentalists – one or two are given solos – which, under Chris Walden’s baton, cradles D’Amico’s multiple vocal shades in soothing strings, appropriately brassy horns and the subtle, easy touch of Jim Cox on the piano.

She proves herself a formidable song stylist. Every word is audible, a rarity for a singer who lives so much in the upper register. And she is risky to the point of audacity in her phrasing. Imagine Billie Holiday singing “And I Love Him” and you’ll get the idea. D’Amico combines the instincts and hard-earned musical sensibilities of her heroines with a touch of Broadway verve and a contemporary technique in such a way that you never feel you’re being treated to just another nostalgia trip.

She may not share Peggy Lee’s small, husky vibrato – D’Amico’s voice is an altogether different instrument – but she pays homage to another big influence with a swinging, unfussy “He’s a Tramp”, letting the lyrics lead the way. Other up tempo numbers like “The Gentleman is a Dope” and the Gershwins’ “They All Laughed” zing with vitality, while Arlen and Mercer’s “One for My Baby” and “When October Goes” (Mercer again, this time with Barry Manilow) are layered with resignation and a restrained hint of melancholy. Likewise, a swirling, jazzy take on Callaway’s “Perfect”, which brings the album to a poignant close like a wistful sigh.

Not on this album but also worth a listen is D’Amico’s most recent recording of “Down With Love”.

CD Review – Renée Yoxon: Let’s Call it a Day; plus news of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Girl Talk, Marianne Faithfull and a Sondheim cabaret season

24 Dec

Renée Oxon sings “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” on a fire escape in Ottawa. The sound quality on her album, Let’s Call it a Day, (reviewed below) is much better!

Wilson, Jungr and Herbert: the new Girl Talk line-up hits London in February

Congratulations to Barb Jungr, whose album The Men I Love has just been named Cabaret CD of the Year by Time Out New York.

Barb and Mari Wilson will be joined in the new year by the equally talented Gwyneth Herbert, as they launch a revived Girl Talk with a new show – I Am Woman. Girl Talk begin a week-long residence at The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road on 8th February.

Mari has just released a fabulous slab of electro-pop, with a slash of retro hi-energy, collaborating with Boisounds on a party floor filler, “O.I.C.”, which is available for free download.

Horses & High Heels: Marianne Faithfull's new album, out in March

Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses & High Heels comes out in March. “I don’t really do conventional,” she warns us in advance publicity. As if we didn’t know. A taster track, the self-penned “Why Did We Have to Part”, is available for free download until 19th January.

Back at The Pheasantry, there is a really good reason for fans of Stephen Sondheim’s work to join the Sondheim Society. In tandem with the Society, producer Sam Joseph has conceived a series of Monday night cabarets starring some of the biggest names from all areas of London musical theatre. Society members benefit from advance notice of the programme and discounted ticket prices. Confirmed so far are: Alex Young (10th January), Sally Ann Triplett (21st February) and Mrs Lovett-to be – at Chichester later in the year – Imelda Staunton (14th March). Future appearances are expected by Rosemary Ashe, Janie Dee, Robert Meadmore, Adrian Grove, Graham Bickley, Michael Peavoy and leading West End musical director Gareth Valentine.

Let's Call it a Day: an auspicious debut from Renée Yoxon

Who’d have thought a physics degree would be the ideal foundation for a career as a torch singer? OK, so she was doing a little music on the side, but Renée Yoxon’s decision to ditch formulae for the jazz clubs of Ottawa is one of those left-field decisions that can occasionally lead to thrilling careers. And on the evidence of her first album, Let’s Call it a Day, this young Canadian could be the biggest female talent to emerge in her field since Diana Krall.

It’s an assured and auspicious debut. Accompanied only by veteran virtuoso René Gely on a selection of guitars – his steel string, in particular, rings with marvellously crisp authority – and occasional piano, Yoxon has reinvented a selection of standards with a refreshing boldness. Not in a revolutionary way, but mainly by re-establishing the lyric as the focus of attention, stripping it away from the overblown tendencies of so many younger interpreters at the moment.

Yoxon’s voice is something to treasure. Like one of the UK’s rising stars, Rumer, with her slightly husky accents and bang-on vocal authority, nothing seems to intimidate Yoxon. The opening track, “The Look of Love”, is a case in point. Bacharach’s off-beat melodies are notoriously tricky to do well, but Yoxon slides through it with lightly-oiled ease.

Undercurrents of melancholy and Billie Holiday-like phrasing seep through her interpretations of “Willow Weep for Me”, a shimmering “The Masquerade is Over” and of course – with an intimacy that’s almost audaciously spare – “Don’t Explain”. Two self-penned numbers, “Let’s Call it a Day” and “Lovers’ Lullaby” add to the album’s sense of freshness. There’s also a French-language version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well be Spring”.

If the final track, “One For My Baby”, betrays her youthfulness and lack of cynicism – catharsis seekers will probably miss the spirit of a wracked and bloodshot Sinatra – equally, it hints at what we can expect from Yoxon in the future. She’s set herself a high bar indeed.

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.