Review : Earl Okin

Review of Earl Okin by Sarah Ellen Hughes
(Pizza Express Dean Street, October 5th, 2009)

My pre-gig research about singer/songwriter/comedy performer Earl Okin had come up with just two things: one was a quote from legendary producer Buddy Bregman : ‘One must see him in person to get him.’ And the other thing: that Okin is apparently a force to be reckoned with ….on the mouth-trumpet.

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Well, Buddy Bregman is right, there’s no doubt about that. I was struck at first by Okin’s ability to sing to every member of the audience – not with a fixed stare but with a knowing look – especially to the noisy table who had, it seemed, misinterpreted the ‘silence’ policy. They soon quietened down.

He was wonderfully engaging. He spent almost as much time talking to us as singing or playing, which was no bad thing. The tales he told about his career were spellbinding. His Portuguese was faultless, and truly charming within the context of his favourite style of music, the bossa nova.

He also makes you laugh: You’re My Thrill had a brilliant injection of comedy. “Here’s my heart on a silver platter – yuk!” I found myself still chuckling about that one several minutes later.

And then there’s that mouth trumpet It’s easy to think of it as just a gimmick – something to be marvelled at but ultimately not to be taken seriously. But it was every bit as good, and as musical as I’d heard. In fact, it was better. I found this instrument to be as integral to Earl’s performance as his singing, or piano or guitar playing. He has an extraordinary ability to sing a solo which really sounds like a trumpet, with accurate pitch and timbre, vibrato, even halve-valve sounds, and a characterful attack and articulation. It was so appropriate to each particular style – whether it be a haunting ballad or swinging standard. At one point my guest turned to me and said, “He can play the trumpet better than I can!” And she’s a trumpeter.

A few tunes stood out for me: Butterflies – a delightfully mellow self-penned bossa nova; Lotus Blossom – a luscious and moving piano solo. After an introduction into the origins of stride-piano, he treated us to an enthralling performance of Ellington’s ‘Black Beauty.’ He took particular pleasure in singing a version of Georgia on my Mind, which he had sung with saxophonist Benny Carter in the very same room 30 years ago.

Okin is a skilled singer, even with a voice which was suffering from the after-effects of a cold. He sings effortlessly, with a captivating subtlety. During his last tune he ended a phrase with a note that lasted and followed through an entire blues sequence of twelve slow bars.

The recordings I’ve tried are definitely worth hearing, but to see Earl Okin live is the only way to go. If he’d been on for a second night I’d definitely have been queuing up to hear him again.

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