March 17, 2013
Here are some thoughts on three female singers from countries that do not spring instantly to mind when talking about jazz. Yes, I know that jazz has long been an international form of music, but I would suggest that if the average jazz fan from the USA or UK were asked to make a list that reached double figures of musicians from Poland, Finland and Italy, they might well struggle. Why is that? It isn’t as if there are no Polish, Finnish or Italian musicians of the highest caliber and more than worthy of serious consideration by jazz fans around the world. I do not doubt that many readers of these words who live in Poland or Finland of Italy, countries that have lively jazz scenes, will be screaming out lists of names, but those from the USA and UK might be much quieter. Well, here are three names, one from each of the three named countries – all are seriously worth your attention. They are Deborah Latz, Sofia Laiti and Roberta Gambarini.
Deborah Latz is now well-established in New York City, and her latest release, Fig Tree, finds her again exploring the Great American Songbook, something that she did to considerable effect on an earlier album I enjoyed. This field of music is one that she clearly admires and respects and, indeed, performs very well; all of which might come as a surprise if a newcomer to her work had first read of her background. Before becoming known as a singer, Deborah built a career in acting and performed several one-woman shows, which embraced the popular culture and often dark history of Central Europe. One of these shows brought her Best Actress Award at the Jerzy Grotowski Theater Festival in Poland. Unafraid to confront historical issues that echo painfully through to the present day, Deborah also appeared in a one-woman performance, The Prisoner, which centers upon a Holocaust survivor. Ably composing words and music for her one-woman show, Travels With Ma Own Self, a career move towards working as a singer was perhaps inevitable, and it is a move that Deborah has accomplished with enormous skill.
Writing about an earlier album, Lifeline, I remarked that although billed as a jazz singer I thought that she really belongs in that large group of singers who bring jazz touches and thinking to the art of popular song. I felt that she did this very well, comfortably finding empathy with American song standards while also displaying rapport with songs better known to European audiences. On Lifeline Deborah is accompanied by her then regular trio of pianist Daniela Schächter, bassist Bob Bowen and drummer Elisabeth Keledjian (as well as guest tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm). Deborah and her collaborators deliver attractive and thoughtful interpretations of songs such as I Get Along Without You Very Well, Witchcraft, How Deep Is The Ocean, and I Didn’t Know What Time It Was and altogether this is a thoroughly entertaining CD.
Clearly, Deborah is at ease with the standards, especially ballads and on Fig Tree she sings Blue Skies, You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, Ill Wind, Embraceable You and Moon River. But she comfortably moves into the jazz arena, singing Hi-Fly, which is by Randy Weston and Jon Hendricks, and Alberta Hunter’s I’m Having A Good Time. There are also attractive examples of Deborah’s abilities as composer and lyricist:You Are, Fig Tree and She Was. On this album, Deborah is supported by the core trio of pianist Jon David, guitarist John Hart and drummer Willard Dyson, while saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum appears as guest soloist. Deborah’s vocal sound is light, delicate, yet her interpretation of lyrics is profound. She sings with springy joyousness that imparts to the listener the pleasure she clearly has in singing these songs.
Since 1989, Sofia Laiti has also been based in New York City. I first heard Sofia on her fourth CD, You Don’t Know Me, which was released in 2004. On this album, she ably demonstrated why she had gained an admiring following on the city’s jazz and contemporary pop scenes. Sofia sings in a mature contralto, comfortably displaying her mastery of her second language. On this CD, she is backed by an effective quartet: pianist Larry Ham, bassist Leon Lee Dorsey, drummer Vince Ector, and veteran tenor saxophonist Houston Person. Sofia performs a selection of mostly familiar songs, for some of which she finds a relaxed intimate mood. Others, such as La Vie En Rose and If You Go Away lend themselves to the dramatic interpretations that they receive.
On her 2011 release, Like A Road Leading Home, Sofia broadened her repertoire to include latterday pop and in particular the music of Bob Dylan. Only recently has Dylan’s work been taken up by singers in and on the edges of jazz and many listeners will not be surprised that his songs lend themselves to interpretation by contemporary singers. The songs have interesting melodies and meaningful lyrics that explore many topics not often touched upon by the writers of classic pop. Sofia’s interpretations reach to the heart of these songs and she delivers always fascinating variations on the originals, leaning in some instances towards country while the blues that Dylan so admires can also be heard. On this release, Sofia is joined by pianist James Weidman, bassist Marcus McLauren, guitarist Adam Lomeo, and drummer Vince Ector, while accordionist Mariel Berger and violinist Scott Tixier bring added colour to the basic ensemble sound. This is a very pleasing set that should appeal widely and should certainly extend this admirable singer’s audience.
Within days of her arrival in the USA in 1998, Roberta Gambarini won third prize in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, coming behind winner Teri Thornton and runner-up Jane Monheit. Her move to America came after she had established her name in her homeland as a jazz singer of exceptional promise, and she was now intent on studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. Some singers have seen the Monk contest open up a route to fame and fortune, but Roberta chose to remain solidly rooted in jazz, despite the inevitable absence of acclaim outside the genre. That she has fulfilled all her early promise, building a reputation not only with jazz audiences but also among jazz instrumentalists with whom she has worked, is a credit to her ability and perseverance. These include front-rank artists such as Benny Carter, Hank Jones, with whom she recorded an album, Michael Brecker and James Moody. The last named of these appears on two tracks on Easy To Love, and others appearing with her include pianist Tamir Hendleman and bassist John Clayton. The subtle support of front-rank players propels Roberta into plangent performances of songs that while familiar are by no means overdone. They include On The Sunny Side Of The Street, Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, Too Late Now, and Only Trust Your Heart. The charts here are by Roberta and are comfortably loose, allowing singer and instrumentalists to swing through exhilarating variations on familiar chords. Roberta has a mellow and mature sound, her phrasing is ideal and her interpretation of lyrics excellent.
On You Are There, Roberta is accompanied only by Hank Jones and the results are majestic. (Only Hank Jones? That’s a bit like saying my only car is a Rolls Royce.) Among the songs interpreted here with love and skill and genuine sincerity are Stardust, Deep Purple, When The Lights Are Low, Just Squeeze Me, and You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me. Throughout, the mature understanding for the material makes every song a delight to hear. Choice of tempo is not always obvious, and so much the better for this, and unlike many of the other younger generation of jazz singers, Roberta handles scat with considerable aplomb.
For Grammy-nominated So In Love, Roberta is again backed by front-rank instrumentalists, among them tenor saxophonist James Moody, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, pianist Gerald Clayton, and drummer Jake Hanna. Again, Roberta has made all the arrangements and again the response is exceptional, bringing new life to old favorites, such as Day In, Day Out, Get Out Of Town, That Old Black Magic, From This Moment On, and You Must Believe in Spring. Even Beatles music something not readily adaptable to jazz, gets a new lick of paint.
A final thought: although these singers were born far apart and grew up in very different cultures, they have some things in common. Obviously, all are hugely talented, all have great empathy with the Great American Songbook; less obvious, until you hear them that is, all have excellent linguistic skills. Nowhere is there a hint that English is not their first language. One other link they share, and the only one that is a little less sunny, is that in order to achieve their present stature in today’s world of jazz singing, they had to leave home. Is it only me that finds this sad? Again, maybe it’s only me, but I think that a closer look at artists still working in Poland and Finland and Italy – to say nothing of Sri Lanka and South Africa and New Zealand and China and, well, the list is endless – is something well worth taking.
Or do we all just sit and wait for them to come to us?
March 1, 2013
There are many things to admire about the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra, among which is the (admittedly personal) observation, that it doesn’t sound like a youth band. What’s more (and again it’s maybe just my ears), it has always been this way. Back in the long-ago Mike Beaumont helped create this outstanding big band, which since 1981 has been directed by John Ruddick, and it instantly burst on surprised and delighted audiences with measures of confidence and élan that suggested that the individual musicians in its ranks were experienced veterans. That said, the band’s collective sound gave away its youthful origins through the spirited verve with which the charts were attacked.
In the years that have passed, MYJO has had remarkable success, not least in the BBC’s National Big Band Competition, at first winning the Youth Section, later the Senior division of the Competition. So successful has the band been in this competition that it was recently barred from entering for two years to give other bands a chance. Among famous venues where MYJO has performed are Ronnie Scott’s Club, the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican, The Stables at Wavendon, and Symphony Hall in Birmingham. The band has also appeared on television and radio. And just to prove that its merits are not merely apparent to UK audiences and judges, MYJO entered and won the Dutch National Big Band Competition, where it surpassed adult bands from The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. Additionally, MYJO has extended its audience, performing in other European countries, including Switzerland (at the Montreux Jazz Festival), as well as in Russia and the USA.
Regularly over the years, MYJO has featured famous guests from the world of jazz among whom have been Benny Carter, Buddy Childers, Spike Robinson, Bill Berry, John Dankworth, Bobby Shew, Courtney Pine, Alan Barnes, Arturo Sandoval, Guy Barker, Conte Candoli, Bob Florence, Stan Tracey, Lanny Morgan, and Marlene VerPlanck. (The latter will be appearing with the band at a lunchtime gig on 24 March 2013 at Westley Hotel, Acocks Green, Birmingham.)
On their latest album, Have You Heard, which is surely their best yet, MYJO pays special tribute to the late Bob Florence, who was long a champion of this fine band. Of the nine charts, four are by Florence (three of which are his own compositions), while other arrangers whose work is featured are Sammy Nestico, Rob McConnell, Mark Armstrong, Callum Roxburgh and Robert Curnow. The album opens with a scorching take on The Magic Flea, while other tracks have Florence’s 1, 2, 3, a three-movement composition that would thoroughly test any band, Pumpkinette, another Florence composition, and the album title track, a Pat Metheny composition. Band members featured in solos on these and other tracks are trumpeters Nick Dewhurst, Nick Dunham, trombonists Alex Paxton, Tom Dunnett, saxophonists Callum Roxburgh, Andy Isherwood, Alex Woods, Rosie Price, Colin Mills. Throughout, soloists and the crisp and powerful ensembles are supported and driven on by the exceptional rhythm section, all of whom have their solo moments: pianists Richard Morris and Aled Walker, guitarist Doug McMillan, bassist Nick Roberts and drummer Dave Tandy. And so no one is left out, because every member of this superb orchestra deserves mention and praise, the rest of the band on this album are trumpeters Ben Gaskin, Kevin Wedrychowsky, James Horton, Mark James, Chris Pickering, Davis Tibbitts, trombonists Tom Coppins, Joe Smith, Jon Warburton, saxophonists Lauren Peatfield, Alicia Gardener-Trejo, Chris Brown.
There is much more information to be had about the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra and John Ruddick on the band’s website where you will find full details of upcoming engagements where MYJO can be heard live – and that really is something you should not miss. This site is also where you can find the new and very warmly recommended CD as well as some of the band’s earlier recordings. And if this is your kind of music, then you will also like what John Killoch has to say on his site.