CD REVIEW: Fini Bearman – Porgy and Bess

Fini Bearman – Porgy and Bess
(F-IRE Presents CD 76. CD Review by Alison Bentley)

British singer Fini Bearman’s new album features eight songs from Gershwin’s opera. She eschews any operatic style or story, but remakes each song in the individual folk-edged style she revealed on her 2011 debut CD, Step Up. The opera’s narrative thread is replaced by a powerful dramatic sense: each song has its own distinct emotions and fresh interpretation.

Two songs of loss open the album: Gone, Gone, Gone, a wake for a dead man. Funereal marching drums move into jazz-rock 6/8 with oceans of 60s-style reverb. The intensity of the pure, high voice and Ross Stanley’s gospelly Hammond brings to mind Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger. My Man’s Gone Now is slow and melancholy: ‘Ain’t no use a listenin’/ For his tired footsteps/ Climbin’ up the stairs.’ The voice moves from breathiness to powerful keening as it melts into Matt Calvert’s rock-edged, angular guitar solo- his playing here, and the arrangement, recall some of guitarist John McLean’s work with Kurt Elling. A rollicking blues-rock It Ain’t Necessarily So shows Calvert in fine Clapton-esque mode over a big Chicago blues back beat from the excellent John Blease’s on drums. Bearman phrases the words like a guitar, with a supple lightness and pinpoint accuracy.

There are love songs: Porgy I’m Your Woman and I Loves You Porgy and Bearman sings them with a heartfelt naturalness and directness. The first opens with strong double bass from Jon Cox and bell-like arpeggiated guitar harmonics from Calvert. The textures build (echoes of Radiohead?) as the voice swoops in unselfconscious improvisations. I Loves You Porgy is gorgeous, with delicate opening cymbal work and Durutti Column-like shimmering chords. There’s an exquisite moment as Blease’s percussion sparkles with the guitar and Stanley’s Hammond solo breaks loose in euphoric patterns. Bearman has an affecting catch in her voice, not unlike Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen.

Launch of Porgy & Bess at The Forge, 28th Oct 2014
L-R: Matt Calvert, Jon Blease, Fini Bearman, John Cox,
James Safiruddin. Photo Credit: Kaz Simmons

There are songs of happiness and hopefulness. Bearman has been influenced by Alison Krauss’ work with Robert Plant, and I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ has a country swing that brings out the song’s happy-go-lucky theme perfectly. It also brings out an insouciant folk quality in Bearman’s voice- she admires jazz-folk singer Becca Stevens. There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon has a languorous swing and a sense of yearning where New York is a promised land full of ‘nothing but smiles…that’s where we belong’- Bearman sings with subtle bluesiness, and you can hear the smile in her voice. Prayer (Summertime) is ecstatic, from the opening swooning long looped guitar notes and percussion like rain. Summertime’s melody drifts wordlessly and subliminally by, amidst the trancelike sounds. A thunderous backbeat grows with the powerful vocal improvisation and rock guitar. While studying with Kurt Rosenwinkel in Berlin, Bearman learned the importance of trying to ‘express the inexpressible’- and the band certainly does that in this track.

There’s a variety of moods: love, loss, ecstasy and fun. There’s a range of styles: jazz, swing, folk, progressive rock and blues. Drawing it all together is Bearman’s lovely voice, pure, delicate, and passionate.

Porgy & Bess was launched on October 28th at the Forge in Delancey Street, London NW1.

Categories: miscellaneous

3 replies »

  1. Album Launch Mini-Review:
    A gorgeously balanced performance, from concept to execution. The ensemble shone with beautiful finesse-and ample room for the individual players to shine-while Fini Bearman was the consummate storyteller. Particularly arresting while navigating the ballads (if a touch melisma-heavy at times), Bearman reiterated that acting and singing are interwoven disciplines, a nuance that is often (and sadly) overlooked by jazz singers in general. The stylistically diverse, well thought out arrangements, evocative instrumentation (electric guitar, upright bass, drums and Hammond organ/Wurlitzer), and the flow of the setlist made for an organic, highly enjoyable retelling of DuBose Heyward and the Gershwin's musical masterpiece.

  2. Thanks for writing that Nicky. Two little things I'd like to add.

    Jamie Safiruddin on keys was finding his way round the material for the first time as stand-in for Ross Stanley. I thought he did quite superbly.

    Also I liked the quiet yet powerful support set from Alice Zawadzki (vocal/vln) and Shirley Smart (cello), their first ever outing as a duo, which was quite something. It's a very self-contained unit. The communication and sense of fun and timing between the two of them is really all there, amazing for a first encounter. They have a similar ethos, which is to combine and contrast beautiful sounds with distinctly ugly noises which would give a string teacher palpitations. All done with a smile and a swagger. More please, and soon!

  3. I made a mental note of both of those things! Thanks for adding them-am in complete agreement. Loved the combination of the organ and the electric guitar. Was very impressed with Jamie's tasteful playing.

    And I loved Alice and Shirley's duo set. It could have been an art song cycle. A beautiful melange of classical context, jazz's improvisatory nature, and story telling (a theme for the evening, perhaps).

Leave a Reply