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REVIEW: Nishla Smith Quintet at the Vortex

Nishla Smith
Photo: AJ Dehany
Nishla Smith Quintet
(London debut, Vortex, 12 February 2019. Review by AJ Dehany)

The London debut of Manchester-based Australian-born classically-trained jazz singer-songwriter Nishla Smith twinkled with wistful melancholy and winsome wit. Her writing conveys a distinctive individual sensibility with sensitivity to the nuances of feelings as they shift and shade. Her singing is a delicate but versatile blend of the sparing quiver of Billie Holiday, the pinch of Roisin Murphy and the coruscating chiaroscuro of Beth Gibbons.

The quintet is made up of younger Manchester scene stalwarts. Accomplished bandleaders in their own right, they responsively but respectfully inhabit the darksome burn of Nishla’s world. The scintillating piano inventions of Rich Jones were rich but never cluttered. Trumpeter Aaron Wood’s burnished tone was deployed judiciously with melodic clarity and poise. Bassist Josh Cavanagh-Brierly is respectfully authoritative alongside the drumming of Johnny Hunter, which is detailed without being distracting.

Nishla Smith’s original ballads sound like standards from the American songbook of the 1940s and ’50s. There is an ambivalent undercurrent to the beguiling nostalgia of Another Place and Julian. Maudlin moments shoulder ecstatic reveries. Why brings a sense of the directness of musical theatre with a Sondheim-esque abundance in rhyme and language, melodically trailing into the colder regions of the chord. A scattering of standards sits sympathetically among her repertoire. She performed Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain with a heart-wrenching emotional immediacy.

In the recorded versions I’ve heard of Nishla Smith’s songs, the musical line drawing is coloured in with wonderful string arrangements by pianist Andy Stamatakis-Brown that are inky and insinuating, with an ornate gothic intensity. One imagines it would be terrific to hear that dynamic lushness alongside the harmonic richness of her quintet.

Based in Manchester, she is currently working with Opera North on a narrative song cycle inspired by a fascinating family history which she details in an absorbing interview with The Jazz Podcast. The forthcoming video for Blue Dream is a surreal apparition that visually projects Nishla Smith’s quirky imagination. Standing in a river she investigates a fish, then retires to a cast iron double bed set on the top of a moor to peruse a book on birds. She nibbles cake, plays violent chess by a river, and serves up the uncooked fish at a dining table set out in a wood. She drinks a cup of tea and stares enigmatically out of her dream and into ours. Toward the end of the concert she says to us, “Thank you for coming out. Sorry if I’ve been really weird. I usually have pockets.”

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. 

Voice: Nishla Smith
Piano: Rich Jones
Trumpet: Aaron Wood
Bass: Josh Cavanagh-Brierley
Drums: Johnny Hunter


1. Friends With Monsters (Nishla Smith)
2. Blue Dream (Nishla Smith)
3. I Wanna Make You Happy (Nishla Smith)
4. Golden Ghost (Nishla Smith)
5. Devil May Care (Bob Dorough, Terrell Kirk)
6. With You (Nishla Smith)

1. Another Place (Nishla Smith)
2. You’d Be So Nice (Cole Porter)
3. Why (Nishla Smith)
4. Comes Love (Nothing Can Be Done) (Sam Stept)
5. Julian (Nishla Smith)
6. Don’t Explain (Billie Holiday)
7. Up (Nishla Smith)

LINK: Nishla Smith’s website

Categories: Live reviews

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