Jazz Voice – Celebrating a Century of Song. Friday 12 November, Barbican Centre, as part of the London Jazz Festival. Review by Frank Griffith.
The opening concert of the Festival at the Barbican got things off to a flaming start. A tremendous variety of material was featured, stretching from 1930s torch songs to 1980s soul/pop anthems. The eight singers performing were supported by the 40 piece London Jazz Festival Orchestra, conducted by arranger and musical director, Guy Barker.
Full of life, strolling out in a shiny red gown Paris-based singer China Moses got things rolling with her raucous treatment of Teach Me Tonight ably supported by Barker’s supple arrangement. Her interpretation of Bacharach’s Walk On By showed a more moody and reflective side with its slower than normal tempo. This also brought out more contemporary influences such as Diana Ross, Natalie Cole and her mother, acclaimed jazz songtress, Dee Dee Bridgewater. China moves and grooves about with natural ease accompanied with a winning smile and ebullience about her.
Veteran singer/organist Georgie Fame sauntered on stage in a casual manner, as if ambling into his local. His performance of Always True To You In My Fashion, a little known Peggy Lee vehicle was engaging enough with its Latin beat coupled with some clever nursery rhyme like melodic exchanges between the pizzicato strings and brass. It did, possibly over extend its sell by date a tad. His interpretation of the 1930s ballad, Everything Happens to Me, however, brought the house down. His weathered and slightly crumpled yet soulful delivery coupled with Barker’s lush and moody Raksinian orchestral backing was truly heroic and monumental. It never tipped too far into Hollywood-like melodrama and showed pathos and understatement at the key moments.
The young American singer, Gretchen Parlato, a petite figure sporting a subtle dark outfit opened with a clapping riff while humming the rhythmic hook of Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly. The instrumental anthem of 1970s Fusion converted well as a vocal. Barker’s resourceful rhythmic writing here effectively fooled this listener into imagining an odd time metre being utilised when in fact the beat was just being moved around a bit. Gretchen’s original lyrics to Wayne Shorter’s 1960s jazz tune, Ju Ju were refreshing and provided the programme with a welcome change of pace from the largely Classic American Songbook format. This piece also featured the only occurrence of scatting, associated with jazz singing but sometimes preferred in moderation by listeners. In this case it was quite welcome and handled deftly and subtly by Ms Parlato.
Other star turns included another daughter of a famous singer, Jacqui Dankworth. Her paced and touching take on It Never Entered my Mind scored well, as well as her duet with Charlie Wood on Baby Its Cold Outside, bringing out her coyly sensual suggestive side to this somewhat racy, saucy song. R n B singers, Noel McCoy and Hamish Stuart also scored on Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder material. The “surprise” guest was the omnipresent Paloma Faith who was loud and colourful, replete with a glittery full-length skirt darted with pinks and lavenders to compliment her healthy mane of curly red hair. Her versions of At Last and Lets Get Lost also embodied this character giving these innocent enough songs a louchey yet light hearted, somewhat tongue in cheek expression.
Oh, and what an effort by Guy Barker. Does this man ever sleep? To have written 22 arrangments, rehearsed and conducted a 40 piece orchestra is nothing short of phenomenal. His Down the Decades medley kicking off the second half celebrated three great jazz figures; Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock. If this wasn’t enough he managed to begin and end the medley with trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler’s lilting waltz, Everyone’s Song But My Own. While it was an impressive weaving of different styles, beats and tempo changes I found the transitions to be a bit sudden and hurried in places. A rollicking, high life treatment of Rollins’ St Thomas completed the proceedings with aplomb before lilting back to the reflective Kenny Wheeler theme for a quieter, reflective close.
The London Jazz Festival Orchestra was all-star. Fine solo work emanated from the fiery tenor sax of Graeme Blevins, the guttaral plunger mute trombone of Alastair White and the melliflous and tasty flugelhorn of sweet Martin Shaw. The puckish impery of Alan Barnes’s clarinet was in full view on Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw numbers as were the delicate ivory caressings of Dave Newton. Special plaudits to the workhorse team of Tom Rees-Roberts and Nathan Bray splitting the lead trumpet chores- no mean feat on a demanding lengthy programme. The session ace, guitarist, Mitch Dalton, ably filled out the rhythm section and he came to the fore with his blistering solo on Cruisin. The ever so musical violinist/composer Sonia Slany led the 25 strong string section.
A truly great night, it was full of variety and excitement with something for everyone.
China Moses will appear as part of Strayhorn the Songwriter at the Purcell Room next Saturday 20 November. See our preview.