Fumi Okiji and Brigitte Beraha vibe up traditional sounds at The Vortex


The launch of singer Fumi Okiji’s album Old Fashion (the first based around her Old Time Jazz Band ensemble) supported by fellow singer Brigitte Beraha, presented two contrasting experiences of the interpretation of existing repertoire. Accompanied solely by guitarist Stuart Hall, Beraha treated the audience to a set of largely Brazilian works with a voice perfectly suited to this style. Her sound production, vibrato (or lack of) and rhythmic conception were right on the money, while she also added to the Brazilian vocal tradition an extended upper register (with pleasing sweetness) and well-conceived scat lines delivered with discretely chosen phonetics. Her arrangements echoed the less-is-more charm of Brazilian music with minimal introductions and endings – highlights included Jobim classics ‘Chovendo Na Roseira’ (‘Double Rainbow’) and ‘Aguas de Marco’ (‘Waters of March’). Placed within the minimal line-up of a guitar-voice duo and singing well-suited repertoire, Beraha flourished in a performance that was a pleasure to hear.

Okiji’s set, the main event of the evening, was naturally more involved with the forging of a distinctive new ensemble and the release of a new album. Her voice is balanced across all registers with a finished sound and natural vibrato, and as a singer she is her own woman: melismatic but not overly bluesy, seemingly free from American diction and influenced by a broader musical palette than her Old Time Jazz Band moniker might suggest. Although there were few vocal surprises during straight-ahead selections such as ‘I’m Old Fashioned’, Okiji was sublime in her delivery of more atypical repertoire such as the blues ‘Shake Surgery’. Still close to the beginning of her Old Time Band project, Okiji appears in the process of discovering the group’s A-list materials.

The Old Time Jazz Band utilises cello rather than double bass, lending the group a lighter bottom-end. Drummer Roy Dodds, whose unhurried marking of the time suits the album concept, left his sticks in the bag (swapping between two sets of brushes and mallets) which ensured the bass lines of cellist Ben Davis were not overpowered. Davis proved to be an excellent soloist, swapping from pizzicato to bow and utilising the entire register of his instrument. Nowhere was this more evident than during ‘Mood Indigo’ (counted-off at the perfect slow-medium tempo) balanced out by a superb improvisation by clarinettist Idris Rahman. He proved an excellent foil for Okiji, interjecting her rendition of ‘St. Louis Blues’ with characteristic bluesy clarinet fills. Idiosyncratic contributions by guitarist Hall (e.g. playing high up the strings beyond the fretted area, percussively rubbing the guitar body and detuning the guitar strings) meant the group presented three contrasting solo voices.

Understatement was the order of the day for the Old Time Jazz Band, which unfortunately did appear to hold back the momentum of the gig. Although the group swung cohesively during ‘Tea for Two’ and ‘Yesterdays’, surprisingly this full-group effort proved to be the exception rather than the rule. Individual contributions sometimes left an excessive amount of empty musical space, while both guitar and cello had a tendency to drop out during the solo efforts of colleagues. This meant the group was often out-of-gear, despite the required manpower being present. The Old Time Jazz Band appears to be in the process of discovering how to blend the respective traits of its members to best effect. While Beraha presented a much more finished product on the night, Okiji has successfully initiated an exciting new project with obvious potential.

– Jamie Fyffe

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