Paloma Faith and the Guy Barker Orchestra
(Colston Hall, 22 October. First night of Symphonic Grace UK Tour. Review by Jon Turney)
“Went down to Colston Hall last night”.
“What did you hear?”
“A soulful singer, in front of a 42-piece jazz orchestra”.
“Yeah: Paloma Faith. She’s had some success recently, and wanted to do something more ambitious”.
“What was it like?”
Lots of Paloma love tonight. It’s a full house, and they know all the songs. But this is about more than the songs. The brief first set features the orchestra, serried ranks of string players to the left, a harp that looks as if it’s balancing on the rear of the stage, a mass of horns to the right, non-playing conductor Guy Barker presiding over his own arrangements. The first, a re-working of Goodman’s version of Sing, Sing Sing is a spectacular declaration of intent – Ralph Salmins on drums pounds out Gene Krupa’s tom tom figure, Ben Castle does the clarinet honours, and the whole thing sounds as vibrant as it must have done in 1937.
There’s more from Barker’s crew (the complete touring party, he tells us, number 56), including soul standard features for two backing singers – Naomi Miller going to town on Preacher Man – and a five-section overture combining themes from Faith’s songs and from some of her key influences such as Billie Holiday and Etta James. They sound magnificent throughout.
But it is Paloma we’re waiting for, and the holdouts in the bar make sure they take their seats for the 90 minute second set. She and Barker have done this before, at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival last year, but this is the first night of a full tour and must be pretty testing. Her voice has a lot of soul power, but how will it sit with such a big, generously miked band?
It copes easily, without straining: impressive. The voice mostly blends rather than cuts clean through. On her own songs, it helps if you know the words already – but even if all you’ve caught are some of her many slickly moody videos, you probably do. The tributes to past masters, Bettye Lavette, Nina Simone, come off well, then she relaxes back into her own repertoire – 30-Minute Love Affair, New York, Just Be. All come across as if intended for this setting, as well they might. This is pretty much the musical equivalent of riding in a Rolls Royce: there’s quality engineering here in depth, not much scope for fancy manoeuvring but absolutely no doubt you will arrive at your destination in some style.
And style is important. Faith likes to be a little theatrical (see those videos). On stage, she doesn’t reach the heights of the best exponents of song as theatre, like Ute Lemper, but it enhances the evening, and if you are a habitual jazz listener it raises the bar pretty high. Most jazzers are so intent on the music they forget it is part of a show. She doesn’t.
The result, for me, is a set where you can hear Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey or even Cab Calloway contributing to the delivery, as well as the bluesier names she normally cites. And perhaps that’s right, because she looks back, not just to the 1960s, but to an era when “light entertainment” could be seriously soulful, and often swung like blazes. She still loves it, and revels in the sumptuous sound of the orchestra. Music isn’t just something that comes out of a laptop, she enthuses. “This is what real music sounds like. It’s a wonderful thing.”
So it is.
“You enjoyed yourself, then?”
“Interesting. Really didn’t think people did that kind of thing any more”.
“They do now”.