The faded victoriana of Brighton’s Theatre Royal provides a suitable background for a Sarah Vaughan tribute, evoking the kind of setting she might have performed in in her heyday. Julian Joseph acts as MC, providing a short introduction - “this really ticks all our boxes” - before his trio sets the scene for Carleen Anderson’s suitably glamorous entrance. She looks like a million dollars, though the effect of her splendid purple evening dress is slightly undermined by the onstage presence of a small table bearing a decidedly prosaic thermal mug and flask. Before a hushed house, she affirms her love and respect for Sarah, and the band launches into an energetic ‘Perdido’, following smartly with ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing’.
With Mark Hodgson on bass and the mighty Mark Mondesir on drums, the trio are a real musical powerhouse, and Anderson is every bit their equal. Her range, power and sustain are remarkable; more than one song ends with a shattering high note, but she’s in full command of every part of her register, as she is of a whole spectrum of different vocal techniques from bluesy growls to pure high tones. As a Sarah Vaughan, she still sounds very much like Carleen Anderson - virtuosic as it is, her stylistic approach feels like a bit of a mismatch when compared with the original Sarah’s cool delivery.
More contemporary material from Joe Sample and Stephen Sondheim fares better, and a highlight is a version of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues’ that benefits from a more restrained beginning, allowing Anderson to build her performance to a gripping climax. ‘How High The Moon’ is a fitting homage to Ella. But despite the obvious sincerity of Anderson’s tribute, her strengths as a performer sometimes translate uneasily from her natural musical roots into the jazz idiom. ‘Nobody But Me’ starts with a relatively straight, swinging rendition of the melody but the incorporation of series of startling leaps into an operatic upper register, among other stylistic tropes more typical of gospel-rooted R&B, tend to encumber rather than enhance the jazz.
The trio are on superb form, with Mondesir in particular displaying outstanding power, sensitivity and precision. The second set concludes with a heartfelt pair of originals, which Anderson dedicates respectively to Nelson Mandela, and to the grandparents who raised her. Here the form, content and delivery are all perfectly matched, and the rousing gospel finale goes a long way towards justifying Joseph’s accolade; “Carleen is one of the foremost exponents of song in the world today.”
– Eddie Myer