CD reviews

Esther Bennett & Sarah Moule – ‘The Songs of Duncan Lamont’

Esther Bennett & Sarah Moule feat. Daniela Clynes – The Songs of Duncan Lamont 
(EP download review by Kai Hoffman)

It is impossible to write a review that encapsulates what this recording means to the individuals involved. In fact, I would imagine that is true for most reviews. Albums are a lot of work, often over months or years; pet projects or complete obsessions, carefully crafted to suit the vision of the performers and writers involved. This EP, The Songs of Duncan Lamont, is a lovely introduction to an enormous library of songs, all written by the multi-talented, and wonderfully witty Duncan Lamont Senior, a brilliant saxophonist who worked with so many famous names in show business, one cannot list them all (but in case you’re curious, the list includes Henry Mancini, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Peggy Lee, Fred Astaire and Paul McCartney).

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Duncan Lamont Senior’s catalogue of songs is absolutely vast, and I can’t imagine how difficult it was to choose just a few. Described as the next Cole Porter, his tunes have been performed by singers and musicians including Natalie Cole, Elaine Paige, George Shearing, Cleo Laine and Blossom Dearie, amongst many others. But this review is about something altogether more unique: on this EP, his songs are being performed by Lamont himself, with some of his most loyal and dedicated singers on board, visiting and enjoying the songs as familiar as the performers are to one another.

Friends with Duncan for over twenty years, versatile pianist Simon Wallace and honey-voiced singer Sarah Moule are experts on the poignant subtleties of his vast catalogue of work. In addition, there are few singers better placed to do complete justice to his wonderful lyrics than the inimitable Esther Bennett, who helped create the Duncan Lamont Songbook show in 2010, and has toured the material around the UK over the past ten years. The EP also features brilliantly responsive ensemble playing from pianist John Crawford (a long time touring companion of Esther & Duncan) as well as drummer Mark Fletcher.

The EP starts out with one of Duncan Lamont’s vastly evocative tunes I Told You So. You can hear, in every note, the players’ love for and familiarity with both the music and each other. It’s a mesmerising combination. Sarah Moule’s smooth, velvety delivery transports you to a timeless place, where the only thing that matters is that particular song, at that particular moment. There is an atmospheric sense of melancholy in the tune (and lyrics) which few composers have captured as well as Duncan Lamont has with this song – and the line about vintage champagne really being cyanide is absolute genius.

We move on to Esther Bennett’s interpretation of the fabulous Pretty People. Esther’s clever wit and diction take you straight to the heart of the lyrics. You’re drawn into these pretty people’s world, feel their pain, can totally imagine the couple described. It’s impressive the way this real-life situation has been turned into an upbeat, Latin-feeling tune – perfectly portrayed by Esther and the band, with Duncan’s tasteful, melodic saxophone commentary carrying everything along to its conclusion.

Built on a foundation of understated elegance provided by the immaculate performance of pianist Simon Wallace, Stark Reality is another unbeatable break-up song. With palpable sadness and resignation written right into the melody, this number is delivered with a mesmerisingly-knowing turn of phrase by Sarah Moule, and made all the more beautiful and poignant by Duncan’s soloing.

Featuring an entrancing bass solo by Simon Little, There Ain’t Nothing Like The Blues is delivered with one-hundred-percent-convincing clarity by Esther Bennett. You can’t help but stop what you are doing and listen to Esther’s delivery of this completely enveloping lyric. Compared to the other songs on the album, this one is certainly the darkest, and the most likely to give you that 3am-alone-at-the-bar-with-another-martini feeling. 

The final number, A Great Day in Harlem, feels like a nod to bebop vocal trio Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross. It’s a lovely addition to find Esther and Sarah are joined by singer Daniela Clynes for a rollicking four minutes of toe-tapping. Dedicated to the eponymous photograph taken by Art Kane for Esquire magazine back in the late 1950s, A Great Day in Harlem pays testament to Duncan Lamont’s versatility as a composer, and finishes off this short but highly entertaining album with aplomb.

The Songs of Duncan Lamont is the crystal-clear, purified essence of the best sort of live vocal jazz gig you could ever attend. With the combination of immaculately crafted lyrics and soaring, original melodies, performed by Duncan and some of his closest friends – people who really love the music and put everything they’ve got into the performance – it’s absolutely divine. It has been a pleasure listening to this wonderful combination of people – I only wish I had caught the show more often live. This album is the next best thing. 

As Frank Griffith said, may Duncan’s “music and legacy live on”. RIP. (Duncan Lamont Snr. 1931-2019)

LINK: Read Griffith’s 2019 obituary for Duncan Lamont Snr



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