Zena James launched her new album, Captivated, at the Pizza Express in Dean St last Sunday, and the whistles and whoops from a good Sunday night crowd proved that she is steadily acqiring a fair number of fans for her brave leap into the soul-laden subtle groove end of the jazz spectrum. On stage she projects a warm,engaging personality,and an infectious sense of enjoyment in the work of her fellow musicians that is really captivating, showing no fear when she attacks an exposed high note in an arrangement in contrast to the mellow quality of her vocal sound in the lower range of her expressive voice. No histrionics, just heartfelt emotion. Her choice of material was almost impeccable ,with Joe Sherman’s That Sunday, That Summer and Stevie Wonder’s I Can Only Be Me two of the most touching things that I have heard in months. Her treatment of Human Nature, fast becoming a crossover favourite was just gorgeous,and only the backbeat treatment of Gypsy In My Soul, usually a natural swinger, didn’t work for me, sounding a tad slow and ‘down’ but not in the good way that jazz is supposed to make it.
Her band was brilliant, never over playing or forgetting who the audience had come to see. A new face on piano and keys, Mike Guy, Mike Bradley on drums (both members of the Thriller band) and electric bass virtuoso Pat Bettison, not too long back from a few years in New York,really understand how the understated groove thing works while Simon Allen on all three of the main saxophones threw grenades into the room every time he stepped up to the solo mic. It was obvious that Zena was loving every minute of their work,and it was that shared sense of enjoyment that,as much as anything ,that came off the band stand to the listeners to put smiles on their faces all round the room.
Nice too to see the presence of fellow vocal artists like Trudy Kerr, Shireen Francis, Sarah Ellen Hughes, Josh Kyleand Emma Smith, members of the toughest part of the whole jazz scene. Zena has been getting a good radio response to the new album and on this showing, thoroughly deserves it.
Captivated is available from Zena James’ website