Album reviews

Jo Lawry – ‘Acrobats’

Jo Lawry – Acrobats
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4798. Album review by Paul Kelly)

Well here’s a surprise! Australian-born Jo Lawry is best known as a singer with Sting (‘backing singer’ rather under-rates her role I think) with whom she has toured the world, complementing the songsmith’s vocals. She demonstrated a memorable and endearing chemistry with him on his fine ‘Last Ship’ music-opera about his Newcastle roots.

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In 2015 Lawry released ‘Taking Pictures’ a well-produced album of nicely shaped, well, pop songs really. Her 2017 album ‘The Bathtub and the Sea’ was in a similar vein. And now, six years later, Lawry has returned to her jazz roots (she came second in the 2005 National Jazz Awards of Australia), stripped everything back and recorded an album of just voice, double bass and drums. When I caught her at Poole’s Sound Cellar on the first night of her brief European tour she told me, ‘I did ten years of rock and pop and I wanted to get back to my jazz roots. I also wanted to challenge myself’. 

Jo Lawry Acrobats album cover

Challenge herself she has done on ‘Acrobats’, with New Yorkers Linda May Han Oh on double bass and Allison Miller on drums. To sing without the support or accompaniment of any form of harmony instrument puts the vocalist in a naked and potentially scary place. There is little to fall back on and much to go wrong. It requires a particularly good voice, a fine-tuned ear and a great deal of flexibility, especially to sustain it over a whole album. ‘Acrobats’ proves that Lawry has the necessary voice and technique and she approaches the challenge with confidence and imagination. 

The ten tunes on ‘Acrobats’ are mostly standards – with three by ‘Guys and Dolls’ composer Frank Loesser, but all done in a way that you probably haven’t encountered before. Lawry has an appealing voice at the upper end of the vocal spectrum and she sings with little vibrato. She lacks some of the earthiness of some jazz singers, but makes up for it with a clarity and precision that is impressive especially on the faster numbers. Live she can scat as well as the great Annie Ross, and possibly better. She also has considerable range and has the technique to take phrases across that awkward vocal bridge from upper to lower registers. She can also sing a nice story.

‘Acrobats’ opens with Travelling Light, not the 1959 Cliff Richard hit (heaven forbid!), but one of the lesser known Frank Loesser tunes from ‘Guys and Dolls’ (as Sebastian writes in his interview with Lawry, link below, the tune is little known on account of it being cut just before curtain up on the show’s opening night!).

On Vernon Duke’s Taking a Chance On Love, Lawry pushes the harmonic centre so it seems to slip into one or more keys in the opening section. It could easily pass for a mistake. It’s anything but and demonstrates considerable skill. She takes Cole Porter’s You’re the Top at a brisk pace starting with just voice and brushes with Allison Miller’s drums dancing behind skittish vocals as if she were Fred Astaire. On Deed I Do, Miller’s percussive accompaniment creates delightful near harmonies with Lawry’s voice. The brilliant and mercurial Lennie Tristano seems to have dropped off the jazz repertoire. Jo Lawry treats his 317 East 32nd St as if it were a long, winding avenue rather than a fixed place, scatting his twisting theme and then improvising wandering bebop phrases, slurring them across bar lines so you can never quite tell whether it’s in three or four time. 

Underlying all of this is Oh’s fleet double bass playing. It provides periodic harmonic reference points. But on some numbers rather than play that traditional bass role of anchoring the music to a particular place or sequence it seems to be more of a conversational partner. That’s also the feel of Miller’s delicately placed drums, mostly snare and brushes with occasional delicately struck cymbals. But if this suggests a complete deconstruction of loved jazz standards, rest assured much of this is well-crafted embellishment and the core of the songs remains there to hear and enjoy.

Taken overall, ‘Acrobats’ is the sort of jazz equivalent to a fasting weekend, with all those rich and sugary harmonies and accompaniments put aside, allowing the listener to focus on the melodic line – and of course the words. I can’t think of any other singers who have done a whole album in this vein. It’s a refreshing and impressive feat and more listenable than the format might suggest. It’s also a CD that every aspiring jazz singer should listen to. 

‘Acrobats’ closes as it opens with another Frank Loesser tune from ‘Guys and Dolls’. Jo Lawry’s If I Were A Bell starts with just the rhythm section and is bracketed on the CD as “soundcheck”. If that’s a soundcheck, then it’s a pleasure just to hear this trio warm up. 
Acrobats is released on Whirlwind Recordings on 10 February

LINKS: Acrobats on Bandcamp

Whirlwind Recordings

Feature interview with Jo Lawry

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