CBSO Centre, Birmingham, UK
This was the first of what promoters Jazzlines intends to be a series of gigs focussing on vocal jazz and curated by Birmingham-trained singer Sara Colman.
Sara was up first with her regular bassist/MD Ben Markland and drummer Carl Hemmingsley, with Malcom Edmonstone standing in for usual pianist Chris Taylor. As is often the case, you only have to change one element to reshape the whole, and Edmonstone, Professor at the Guildhall School, brought a broader palette of sounds to the band.
Sara opened with a new song of her own, Eyes Wide Open, and it’s a beauty. Dramatically arranged with the singer at the piano for the first verse with just Markland’s arco bass for part-time company, a seamless switch of pianist left Sara free to concentrate on an increasingly buoyant vocal with the band rising to lush full strength.
There followed some Colman favourites like the self-penned Supernatural, a swift I’m Beginning To See The Light and the excellent interpretation of Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, with Hemmingsley’s Steve-Gaddish groove a particular joy.
It is in her own material and in adaptations of the singer/songwriter era book that Sara is at her most natural and most interesting, so it was a delight to have new readings of Jimmy Webb’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (Edmonstone brought an icy spikiness to his right hand) and Joni Mitchell’s My Old Man. A vocal version of Pat Metheny’s Always And Forever Yours fitted in perfectly, too.
And we even had a jazz version of a Sting song that wasn’t Fragile, but instead a stylishly deconstructed and stripped down If You Love Somebody.
An excellent and highly satisfying set, then, but if Sara Colman can write songs as good as Eyes Wide Open and Supernatural, she really should be singing more of her own material.
After the break we were in more traditional (and I don’t mean straw boaters!) jazz vocal territory. While Claire Martin does include some songs that are a lot newer than the Great American Songbook, it is this great treasure trove that forms the core of her programme.
She takes her inspiration from singers from a way back, too. Singers like Shirley Horn, whom she spookily evoked during a magical reading of But Beautiful, Anita O’Day, who she name-checked before You Turned The Tables On Me, and Julie London, with The Meaning Of The Blues (also covered by Horn).
The newer stuff was strong – a vocal version of a Joshua Redman tune called Lowercase, So 20th Century, and a fine rendition of Michael Franks’ Crayon Sun – but the performance style retains its classic jazz form.
To watch and listen to Claire Martin is to witness a musician who really has, through intelligence, talent and a lot of hard work, incorporated art and life into one whole. She has managed to make her singing as spontaneous as conversation, playing with rhythm in an often outrageous way while making it look easy as pie.
Her band – Gareth Williams on piano, Laurence Cottle on bass and, new to me, Dave Ohm on drums – is excellent; wonderfully tight, yet they also feel thoroughly relaxed, and are clearly enjoying themselves. For me a Williams solo is always a joy, and some of Cottle’s are pretty good too: the ones where he plays melodically and doesn’t fall into that muso trap of playing finger-twisting patterns up and down the fretboard just because he can.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that, excellent as all the musicians who performed were, there is one subtle difference between - how can I put this? – a still developing jazz group and a really grown-up one. It’s what they do with the PA.
For the Sara Colman set the piano felt a bit harsh, the overall sound was a bit loud, and I occasionally lost Sara’s vocals, while the double bass remained resolutely lost in the mix. I gave it the benefit of the doubt and assumed it was because I was sitting right at the front.
For the Claire Martin set nothing had changed but the drum kit, bass and the mic. But now the sound was just perfect.
Since the sound engineer knows the room intimately from doing all the Jazzlines gigs, I can only assume it’s down to the musicians. So was the change down to more experienced sound checking? Or to more sensitive and experienced playing? Or both? I don’t know how it’s done, but I know I can hear the difference.