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REVIEW: Jazz Voice at the Royal Festival Hall (2018 EFG LJF)

Zara McFarlane with Guy Barker and the orchestra
Photo: MSJ Photography
Jazz Voice
Royal Festival Hall. 16 November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Lauren Bush)

The Jazz Voice Gala has been an opening event of the London Jazz Festival now since 2008, when Festival Director John Cumming commissioned Guy Barker to select and arrange music to feature a group of singers chosen specially to showcase in the festival week. Barker was given licence to create an ensemble that would “cover everything” so he created an orchestra that incorporated the traditional big band set up with all the bells and whistles, featuring a monstrous string section and even some French horns.

This year’s selected singers reflect the festival’s strong international representation, including Mariza from Portugal, Laila Biali from Canada, Americans Allan Harris, Lea Delaria and Deva Mahal, and native Brits Anthony Strong, Zara McFarlane and Lisa Stansfield.
Lisa Stansfield
Photo: MSJ Photography
The night started off with a bang – a song from the Andrew Lippa musical The Wild Party. Lea Delaria had enough flair for everyone in the room, and her energy was truly infectious.

Jumoke Fashola, the host of the evening (and also co-host of the BBC Radio 3 show J to Z), shared some tidbits about the songs featured throughout the evening featuring the number “8” in many ways – pointing out years of relevance from birth dates to death dates to album dates, connecting everything to the current year 2018.

Powerhouse vocalist, Deva Mahal, was next, with an original song from her debut album,  Shards,  her voice reminiscent of Adele and Alicia Keys. Anthony Strong then joined the orchestra on piano, sweetly singing As Long As ‘She’ Needs Me, from Oliver! by Lionel Bart with a terrific arrangement, echoing tones of Frank Sinatra’s charts from the ’50s and ’60s. Next, Zara McFarlane’s original composition, Silhouette, had a beautiful wordless chant at the beginning of it. Her low range, full of richness, she slid effortlessly through octaves and even scatted in the middle.

Lisa Stansfield, an audience favourite, sang a rock-influenced rendition of My Funny Valentine, while the band floated gracefully behind her, featuring a beautiful flugelhorn solo from Martin Shaw. Next, Laila Biali’s award-winning original song, Satellite, fluttered in beautifully, as she set the pace with a memorable piano riff and pop inspired groove.

Mariza, who is famous for singing in the “Fado” style (known for its mournful tunes and lyrics), gave the audience a warm welcome into her world. Her voice was stunning and stylish, and the meaning of her music was clear, despite not being sung in English. Allan Harris finished off the first set with a up-tempo swinging number from his latest album – a nod to Eddie Jefferson’s classic vocalese style. Sister Sadie was full of fun and led the audience into the interval on a happy note.

The second set started with a medley from a time when jazz embraced funk, soul and the grooves of South Africa, a tribute to the spirit of 1968. The band was in full force, Guy Barker’s terrific arrangements giving each section a chance to shine – especially the horns. It was great to have a special selection for the band to show off just how stellar they are.

Lea Delaria opened and closed the show
Photo: MSJ Photography
The strings were featured beautifully in Deva Mahal’s version of Good Morning Heartache. It was obvious she’d listened to Billie Holiday sing it, but still managed to find her own flavour with it. Zara McFarlane returned with an up-tempo swinging number called Never Will I Marry. She impressively sang the shout soli in the middle with the band and was obviously having a brilliant time fronting this dynamo orchestra.

Anthony Strong’s second song gave him the rare chance to step out from behind the piano on the lovely ballad Some Other Time, featuring the beautiful French Horn section.

Mariza continued with another tune from her album Tera in her native Portuguese, roughly translating to “Kiss of Longing”. This one had a bit more of a playful feel to it as she teased the band on the last note.

Laila Biali featured another song from her latest album with a tune by Randy Newman, I Think It’s Going To Rain Today. Her voice held similarities to Becca Stevens, and the arrangement, featuring the string section, really captured the bleak and beautiful sentiment of the song.

Allan Harris sang Eddie Jefferson’s lyrics to the Coleman Hawkins tenor solo from the classic Body and Soul. This version had a likeness to Moody’s Mood for Love and Harris’ version did the song justice. Lisa Stansfield included one of her originals from her newest album, Twisted, about an all-consuming love. This song showed off the prowess of Guy Barker’s arrangements.

Lea Delaria got to open and close the night, finishing off the evening with the powerful David Bowie song Life on Mars. Her theatrical performance would have made Bowie proud as she poured her soul into the poignant words.

An encore, with special guest, Charlie Wood, boosted everyone’s mood back into a toe-tapping, New Orleans inspired medley. The whole crew of singers marched back onto the stage to take turns trading lines with the Wood and the orchestra.

It was clear throughout Royal Festival Hall that a good time was had by all – another successful London Jazz Festival opening night Voice gala.
Anthony Strong
Photo: MSJ Photography

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