(Pizza Express Dean Street, July 14th 2011)
If New York is so good they could shamelessly name it twice, then why should Shireen Francis, a much-admired singer – but perhaps a too closely-guarded secret – on the London scene feel constrained to celebrate the launch her album “Steppin’ In” just the one time? The CD had its first launch gig at the 606 in April. And another at Pizza Express Dean Street last night.
Celebrating is something Shireen does well. Indeed there seems to be a particular point in just about every song Shireen Francis performed last night which I found myself looking forward to – and then celebrating – and that’s the moment at the end of a song form when she cuts loose.
A lot of good things happen before that point: Francis has a deep understanding of, and can convey, and sell wonderfully the forms, the architecture even of long songs. But then there’s that joyous moment when she leaves them behind. The dry land of the song is abandoned, and the band instantly settles into a warm, liquid groove and flow. To get technical, she is the reigning champ of open section outro. Smiles were visible again and again on each of the band’s faces. The instrumentalists were clearly savouring the joy of that uncertainty, the possibilities which Francis’ spontaneous let’s-go-anywhere-we-please feel can give.
This is what Shireen does probably as well as any singer in the world. It’s natural, it’s remarkable, it’s down to several things: her Caribbean roots, her considerable high spec vocal gearbox, the fact that the band can enter into multi-dimensional dialogue with each other with nothing off-limits. But it’s also about trust. The musicians know absolutely that they can all put their absolute faith in Francis’ understated, rock-solid talent and temperament as bandleader, to get them back to a precise point on the shore every time, and – to mix the metaphors – get them to land on a dime.
It was a band of five consummate London pros. Bassist Dave Green is flawless, it scarcely needs saying. Tristan Maillot on drums gave that typically crisp precision and sense of lift. Barry Green on piano and as MD played sweetly But what surprised me was how far both Dominic Grant on acoustic guitar, and particularly Gareth Lockrane – on any one of four flutes – could adapt their instruments to lean into the more heavyweight grooves. Lockrane’s visceral alto flute growling in an earthy blues will stay strongly in the mind.
But to the leader the honours. Shireen Francis is a very fine jazz singer who deserves to be FAR more widely known.