Review: Vimala Rowe / Harry Sankey / Howard Alden at the Bloomsbury Hotel

Left to right: Howard Alden, Vimala Rowe, Harry Sankey at the Blooomsbury Hotel

Vimala Rowe with Harry Sankey and Howard Alden 
(The Bloomsbury Hotel, May 15th 2014. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

It’s hard to believe we’re only a few metres from the hectic madness of Tottenham Court Road on a hot spring night, but here in the Bloomsbury Hotel it’s a cool, tranquil sanctuary. Downstairs the restaurant and bar has a quiet speakeasy vibe — but it’s a swanky speakeasy, with an inviting, relaxed elegance. Subdued lighting glows on the polished tables and sparkles on the ice in the cocktails, which are many, varied and lovingly prepared. But we’re primarily here for the hotel’s regular Jazz and Swing evening and this month it’s Vimala Rowe.

An English singer, Vimala has performed with John Etheridge and Bobby Wellins and has — not surprisingly — won the Indy Music Award for best Soul Jazz Funk act. Normally she would be accompanied by the gifted London guitarist Harry Sankey, but tonight is a particular treat because Sankey’s mentor Howard Alden is also sitting in.

Alden started his career playing with Joe Bushkin and Woody Herman and went on to work with Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie. He also played Sean Penn’s guitar solos in the Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown and coached Penn on guitar technique. Alden has recorded numerous albums on the Concord label, which I will be checking out after tonight.

In It’s Only a Paper Moon Vimala’s silk and sandpaper voice immediately made an impact as the two guitars offered swinging support, with Howard Alden’s eloquent plucking and Harry Sankey’s funky strutting. Vimala’s singing is highly rhythmic and pulls off the trick of being both elegant and gutsy. On The Very Thought of You the guitarists offered delicate, restrained support, providing a trellis for the rising rose vine of Vimala’s voice. The singer unerringly finds the internal rhymes of the song with her syncopated powerhouse vocals and the trio makes great use of space.

God Bless the Child is an immensely soulful, heartfelt and powerful performance. Billie Holiday’s haunting portrait of hardship makes me feel a little guilty about sitting here in the lap of luxury, stuffing my face with moist salmon fillets and crunchy home fries in hollandaise sauce. Probably best to muffle my conscience with a marmalade vodka cocktail. Throughout, the guitars are adroitly comping, never getting in the way of Vimala, or each other. Vimala shows the influence of Billie Holiday in her singing, and more emphatically that of Ella Fitzgerald, but with very much her own style.

Perdido is a showcase for Howard Alden’s melodic minimalism, his cascading notes underpinning the vibrant vocals as Vimala segues into a bossa nova scat — suddenly we could be on the beach in Ipanema. Harry Sankey gives a toe-tapping statement of the theme on Exactly Like You and then delivers a casually laid back, modernist take on this old standard, bending the notes and conjuring bright colours in a shimmering solo. Howard Alden plays solidly rhythmic support as Sankey articulates his richly detailed solo. It’s impressive how the two guitars deftly alternate lead and support, never tangling each other up. There is no sense of Alden and Sankey competing — instead they are fusing seamlessly. Meanwhile Vimala sings like a swinging drum solo.

Gershwin’s ’S Wonderful is an occasion for Harry Sankey to provide a joyful, boppish excursion with an open, ringing tone. Howard Alden on the other hand gives us a solo drenched in West Coast cool. And Vimala’s voice is swinging, lambent and vast. On Sunny Side of the Street she demonstrates perfect pitch as she offers up a great carousel of a vocal performance

The evening winds down, after more quality food and booze than I should admit to, with Let There Be Love. The old Nat King Cole hit is conveyed by Vimala’s mink-lined voice in a manner that strikes the perfect balance between homage and originality — like this pleasurable evening as a whole.

Categories: miscellaneous

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