Live review

REVIEW: Sarah Jane Morris at Ronnie Scott’s

Sarah Jane Morris
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Sarah Jane Morris
(Ronnie Scott’s, London. Wednesday 9 January 2019. Review by Jane Mann)

English soul jazz diva Sarah Jane Morris played the last of three consecutive sold out shows at Ronnie Scott’s and she was dazzling. It is more than 30 years since I first heard Morris sing in front of big band The Happy End, and her magnificent voice goes from strength to strength. She was supported by her long term collaborators – guitar virtuosi Tony Remy and Tim Cansfield, and renowned educator Henry Thomas on bass guitar, who between them have played in the studio and live with an amazing array of stars from the Bee Gees to Barbara Thompson. On drums and percussion is Martyn Barker, who has co-written many albums with Morris. They were joined by special guest guitarist Dominic Miller, perhaps best known for his extensive work with Sting, and three backing singers, Lily Bud, Morris’s son Otis Jack Coulter and Jasper Hill. Morris and the band opened with the joyous, African influenced Feel The Love from her 2014 CD Bloody Rain, and we knew we were in for a great night.

Morris, looking the picture of elegance in one of her trademark full-skirted Italian gowns, is that surprisingly rare creature – a singer who sings as if she really means it – and her performances can be an emotional rollercoaster for the sensitive listener. The abundance of guitars creates a full rich backdrop for that powerful contralto voice.

Next she sang a lovely version of Sting’s Fragile, on her 1995 album Blue Valentine, all shimmering acoustic guitars and gentle percussion. More covers of rock standards followed, fresh and invigorating re-interpretations which make you listen anew to familiar tunes. There was a stunning version of John Lennon’s Imagine, the piece totally re-imagined and given an extra verse, through which Morris channelled her genuine dismay and despair about Brexit. She then raised our spirits back up with a stand out version of Janis Joplin’s Piece Of My Heart, for which Morris’s emotional and vocal range, and her mane of unruly hair, are perfect. There was terrific singing from the backing vocalists too, names to watch out for in the future.

The main part of the show highlighted Morris and Remy’s new project: an homage to the music of Scottish singer/songwriter John Martyn. There is synchronicity here – Martyn died 10 years ago aged 60, Morris will be 60 this year, and Ronnie Scott’s is also celebrating its 60 years.

The John Martyn section covered many of my old favourites: Head And Heart, Over The Hill, One World, and the iconic May You Never. Morris’s extraordinary vocal range is a match for John Martyn’s, and the arrangements for voice, guitars and percussion are inspired. Each musician has their own distinctive style, yet they play so gorgeously together, swapping roles, creating wonderful grooves, with intricate solos woven into the whole, and no ostentation. Morris swoops and soars overhead, relishing those delicious Martyn melodies, and the effect is mesmeric. Solid Air was a particular delight. It’s a lovely song, and this arrangement was an exemplar for Morris’s impressive vocal technique and the sensitive ensemble playing of the band.

The band clearly all get on, and Morris gave each of them a warm introduction in the closing song, Dylan’s I Shall Be Released. She has an easy way with the audience too, with amusing interjections between numbers. She encouraged everyone to sing and clap along with the Dylan, and the show finished to joyful applause.

The first encore was Don’t Leave Me This Way, the wildly popular no. 1 hit Morris had with the Communards in 1986. By now, almost everyone was on their feet dancing and joining in, including the waiting-on staff. After that delirium, the band gave us another reworked Martyn classic which Morris has performed for years: I Don’t Wanna Know ‘Bout Evil. We all stayed on our feet, and were invited to join the refrain of this one too – it turns out to be a great sing-along. After many iterations of the chorus, the audience cheered and whooped, and the mood was buoyant. What a splendid night!

A five-track studio-recorded EP Sweet Little Mystery is already available from www.sarahjanemorris.co.uk. The new Martyn CD will be launched with a concert at the Purcell Room on Tuesday 14 May 2019. Until then Sarah Jane Morris is on tour in England and Italy.

Line-up:
Sarah Jane Morris – vocals
Tony Remy – guitar
Tim Cansfield – guitar
Dominic Miller – guitar
Henry Thomas – bass guitar
Martyn Barker – drums and percussion
Lily Bud, Otis Jack Coulter, Jasper Hill – backing vocals

Categories: Live review

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