Live review

Vanessa Rubin featuring Danny Grissett (2019 EFG LJF)

Vanessa Rubin featuring Danny Grissett
(Pizza Pheasantry. 23 November 2019.  EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Alison Bentley)

“Every night, I stand up here on the shoulders of every singer that has ever come before me in jazz –  without them there would be no me.” US singer Vanessa Rubin paid tribute to the tradition she’s steeped in, but sounded distinctly herself, firing up the audience with her supple voice. Relaxed and good humoured, (“Imagine this is my living room!“) she sang a mix of jazz and blues standards with her fine piano trio.

Vanessa Rubin (Publicity photo supplied)

Are You Ready for Me opened with muscular swing to lift the spirits. Rubin’s phrasing was boppy from the start, (she studied with the influential Barry Harris) and had a precision to her scatting. Though her vocal timbre was reminiscent of Carmen Macrae, she sang like an instrumentalist – behind the beat, swinging like a horn player over Stephen Keogh’s fizzing cymbals. In Moonglow she was ahead of the beat, front-loading the phrases, stretching some notes out, holding some back tantalizingly; it made you sit up waiting for the next line in the constantly surprising refrain. Danny Grissett’s piano cushioned the voice, echoing with silky notes between the vocal lines, and the trio responded to the dynamics of her voice with real sensitivity.

They played a bossa in each set, the first Jobim’s Dindi, inspired by her memory of meeting Pharaoh Sanders and Leon Thomas at NY’s Village Vanguard. She had an actor’s way of seeming to speak directly and personally through the lyrics, but never losing touch with the chords and groove. She scatted freely in My Foolish Heart, with percussive vocal sounds.

She told anecdotes about her jazz life – she’s been touring a one-woman show about Billie Holiday in the US – and we heard that the writer of Lover Man had sold the rights to his song for $10. Rubin’s up swing version held no resigned longing – you felt the man in question was just around the corner – or maybe in the audience, she teased? The swing songs continued to uncover her miraculous sense of timing. In Down Here on the Ground she sang like a drummer kicking against the groove, a whole band in her voice. The sparky Kitchenette Across the Hall, by Tadd Dameron, was from her classy new album of his tunes.

She name-checked those most bluesy singers, Marlena Shaw and Irene Reid, and a number of songs were based on the blues. A blues arranged by Dameron for Sarah Vaughan, had Rubin singing with the audience in call and response. In the Billie/Basie classic Now or Never, Rubin’s scatting was as sassy as Sarah Vaughan’s, (who knew there were so many places in a bar?) a little bitter-sweet Dinah Washington in the tone. I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues, like several songs, had an extended outro where repeated words took on a rhythmic life of their own. A thoughtful bass solo from the excellent Joris Teepe had a buttery tone. An up-tempo All Blues incorporated a variety of blues lyrics. Grissett kept the feeling, soloing within a vocal range, then breaking out into runs, as poised as a dancer.

The ballads were heartfelt and lived-in: Detour Ahead and You’ve Changed were dramatic, bringing new nuances to the lyrics, with some Betty Carter-ish slides. Where is Love was elegantly arranged, with a moving ending, as the loud, long vocal notes dropped down into the silence. Nancy Wilson has been an influence on Rubin, and Save Your Love for Me was full of understated soul.

An Afro-Latin Horace Silver song (Señor Blues) had the audience whistling for more, after two generous sets. I was sorry I’d come on the last night, as I’d missed the chance to hear it all over again. Maybe she’ll be back next year with her octet?

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