Marlene Verplanck charms at The Crazy Coqs

Way back, Pizza on the Park was the go-to place for sophisticated jazz and cabaret. Not anymore. It’s long gone. Now, Crazy Coqs, set deep below Piccadilly and furnished in the kind of Art Deco style that makes you think the Great Gatsby (or possibly Leonardo Di Caprio himself) could walk in any minute, has become the new haven for classy performers who relish its close-to ambience. And for punters who think the same.

The diminutive songstress Marlene Verplanck was always at home in Pizza on the Park and has built a UK fan-base through her continuing visits here; this week she’s making her debut at Crazy Coqs (she's there through to Saturday 22 March). Happily for those who know her work, her mix of Great American Songbook swingers and plaintive paeans to unrequited love remains both beguiling and yes, life-enhancing. She stands still, is never histrionic, and picks unhackneyed songs by great composers, concentrating on letting the lyrics do their work, telling stories, and allowing us to relish their value. And all with a smile on her face.

Marlene has always been noted for her clarity, her vocal warmth and her ability to top and tail a song with a telling burst of scat or a sustained high note. These abilities continue as do her unerring taste and innate sense of dynamics and pacing. For all this to happen as cleverly as it did on this, her opening night, her accompanists needed to be alert and suitably adroit. She has charts for everything and John Pearce at the piano read them brilliantly, soloing with panache as Paul Morgan, increasingly Churchillian in aspect and steadfast in support, laid down a firm bass line. Just to hear Marlene sing a song like ‘The Party Upstairs’ with its sense of momentary exclusion or ‘I Keep Going Back to Joes’, a forlorn yearning for a lost love is an experience to be savoured. She may be the last of her kind, a veteran now with a pedigree that goes back to the days of touring big bands, but she loves these songs, sings them with pin-sharp intonation and above all with feeling. Get down to the Crazy Coqs while you can.

– Peter Vacher

 

Zara McFarlane bittersweet and beautiful at XOYO

Invigoration of tradition by means subtle rather than radical was the guiding principle of this performance by an artist of rapidly growing stature. Thirty year-old east London vocalist Zara McFarlane makes no secret of her admiration for the likes of Ella, Sarah and Nina but she has found a way of skillfully extending their legacies, deploying a poised but potent acoustic quartet – anchored by the drums and bass twin engine of Moses Boyd and Max Luthert and buoyed by Peter Edwards’ keys and Binker Golding’s tenor sax – to blend jazz and soul with understated African rhythms and non-western timbres.

While the reprise of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police And Thieves’, with its inventive adaptation of the original roots reggae pulse to lithe, wistful swing, drew the most audible bout of youtube recognition, something of a rarity at a jazz gig, it was the introduction of Manu Delago’s hang to the ensemble that brought a cathedral-like silence of admiration. Tonally, the instrument very loosely recalls the steel pan but Delago elicited an array of spindly, high pitches and damp, woody thuds to create the illusion of a bongo and marimba being played simultaneously. This provided a stunning backdrop for the delicacy of McFarlane’s voice on a spirited version of Simone’s ‘Plain Gold Ring’, but if the singer impressed with the absolute control of both her upper range and focused shifts of tempo, she had the audience swooning when she plunged to the bluesy low tones on the chorus of ‘You’ll Get Me In Trouble’.

Technical excellence aside, McFarlane greatly engaged as a storyteller and lyric writer, falling somewhere between the sharp observational prowess of Carmen Lundy and the hard-edged reality tales of Abbey Lincoln. The amusingly wry ‘old partner new squeeze’ dilemma ‘Better Than Mine’ brought many nods of empathy while ‘Woman In The Olive Groves’, a sobering meditation on the desolate life of a black prostitute in Italy made the point that McFarlane will not refrain from subject matter that the mainstream shirks. Which is why her emergence is necessary.

– Kevin Le Gendre

 

Christine Tobin kisses Cohen at Ronnie Scott’s

Green-hatted blarney is blessedly absent from Ronnie Scott’s on St. Patrick’s Day. Instead, Ireland’s Christine Tobin is launching her gorgeous new album of Leonard Cohen songs, A Thousand Kisses Deep. With her full quartet and guest trumpeter Nick Smart, she further explores the chiselled profundities and sly enigmas of this bone-deep bohemian singer-songwriter, who suits and enriches the jazz songbook.

Where Barb Jungr’s current album and show Hard Rain look to Cohen (and Dylan) for politics and philosophy in unjust times, Tobin finds the melancholy, deeply romantic torrents, which flood 'Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye', or the Lorca-inspired 'Take This Waltz'. There’s a feeling of heightened emotion in Ronnie’s intimacy, an atmosphere of love and sorrow from looking at and listening to her as she sways and gives her all to these songs. A lot of vows would be renewed if this was Valentine’s Day, and quick; because in Cohen’s love songs, a funeral’s never far away.

Tobin’s range swoops low and crests high. Most importantly, she feels all the pain and humour in words, which are crafted to such finely weighted points, you hardly feel the blades sink in. She brings Cohen’s emotions fully to the surface, as if suffering them herself. The Biblical Story of Isaac unfolds with grisly, horror film clarity, Phil Robson’s electric guitar adding harsh squalls to its anger at religious extremism. Double-bassist Dave Whitford and percussionist Adriano Adewale play an extended intro each, and Smart gives a Miles-style fanfare to 'Dance Me To The End Of Love'. But improvisation and Tobin’s scat are in efficient service to the songs, letting the album versions breathe a touch more, but never forgetting the words.

Tobin’s long-time collaborator Huw Warren’s accordion is at the heart of many arrangements, sounding exotic and clipped, and refashioning 'Suzanne' as a zydeco barnstormer. He’s Tobin’s sole accompanist on piano for Anthem, which Cohen took 10 years to write, and is a slow ache of healing wisdom here. “They’ve summoned up a thundercloud, and they’re gonna hear from me,” the lyrics also threaten, in a fury at the wars leaders unleash made greater by Cohen’s conviction that this won’t ever change.

Though Tobin isn’t as centrally motivated by such wider injustices as Jungr, she misses nothing here, or in 'Everybody Knows' apocalyptic, hilarious panorama of disgrace. She adds a couple of her own songs - more rock-oriented, and inevitably lesser lyrically, though not out of place. But it’s the gently heart-rending encore of Billie Holiday’s 'God Bless the Child', which seals a warmly humane night.

– Nick Hasted

 

Zorn goes epic in Oz

 


John Zorn
was on display here in Adelaide, Australia for four consecutive nights at the Adelaide Festival Theatre, over 13 hours, a staggering array of musicians, not to mention musical genres. The concerts came to fruition after Adelaide director David Sefton asked Zorn what would get him to Australia. He told the director four concerts in four consecutive nights and that the programme had to be exactly what Zorn wanted. The director simply agreed and so was born these epic concerts.

With Zorn came all the usual suspects: Dave Douglas, Joey Baron, Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Mark Feldman, Eric Friedlander, Jamie Saft el at, over 40 of New York’s finest, not to mention a massive symphony orchestra and sundry musicians. The first night was dedicated to the ‘Masada Marathon’, 12 configurations over nearly four hours, kicking off with the Masada Quartet and concluding with ‘Electric Masada’, via ‘Banquet of the Spirits’, ‘Bar Kokhka’, ‘The Dreamers’ and Eric Friedlander, solo. There were highlights aplenty, the hard rock of ‘Abraxas’, Uri Caine’s superb solo set, Friedlander’s stunning solo and ‘The Dreamers’ featuring Marc Ribot, despite perpetually looking at the floor!

What was also evident was the sheer joy everyone demonstrated. Aside from putting on a master class, drummer Joey Baron just couldn’t keep the smile off his face. Indeed it remained until after the last concert when he told me that he just loved everything about these shows. Following the second night of classical music, jazz returned with a bang. Titled ‘Triple Bill’, it kicked off with the avant rock of Bladerunner, comprised of bassist Bill Laswell, Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Zorn himself (pictured below). If the audience thought this was loud enough, Mike Patton joined in the mayhem for the last onslaught. Essential Cinema followed four films four more groups. This reviewer found it disconcerting to hear the band but not be able to see them, but that is the whole point of the exercise.

The last of the Triple Bill was Cobra that while difficult to appreciate on disc, is a different story live. A dozen musicians in a semi circle with Zorn in the middle standing at a table, flashing cards to selected musicians to play a particular theme. Occasionally he would don a cap, a signal that he would choose someone to pick the musicians for the next section. A dozen hands would shoot into the air, like schoolboys, as if to say “pick me, pick me”! Despite all this going on, the weird sounds continued.

The final night was the last of Zorn’s ‘Zorn At 60’ series. The opening Song Project was outstanding, the sheer physicality of Patton’s vocals were offset by the beauty of Sofia Rei and the soft tones of Jesse Harris. Following a few excellent classical pieces, Moonchild really cranked up the volume and the energy levels, Joey Baron proving he can play heavy rock with the best of them while Patton exhibited sheer vocal power.

The whole event wound up with a jaw-dropping performance from The Dreamers and a very powerful set from Electric Masada at nearly five hours this was not a show for the fainthearted. Some special mentions must firstly go to bassist Trevor Dunn who displayed not only incredible skills but an ability to play, well, anything brilliantly. Marc Ribot made it clear that he is in a class of his own; Kenny Wollesen is not only a master vibest but can keep up with Baron in the drum department, while Jamie Saft and Cyro Baptista simply ooze class.

Throughout Zorn was in total control, promoting, encouraging and urging more from his bands and the respect he commands was duly rewarded.

– Michael Prescott

– Photos by Tony Lewis courtesy the Adelaide Festival

 

Venus Warriors rise up at Hideaway

 
It’s almost 30 years since some of the best black British musicians enfranchised themselves as Jazz Warriors, and now its lynchpin Courtney Pine has become the non-playing catalyst for a further step forward: the all female nine-piece, Venus Warriors. Their debut gig at Hideaway in Streatham is also a benefit for the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue – on its way to making the Crimea War nurse the first named black British woman so commemorated.

Repertoire, sound and individual styles are unpredictably diverse. Acoustic Ladyland veteran Ruth Goller, a late, valuable recruit, pulls Indian-sounding chords from her electric bass before switching to upright. Steel pan virtuoso Delphina James and Rosie Turton’s ska-inflected trombone both add a Caribbean flavour, and there’s a strong strain of latin funk from the rhythm section, while Jazz Warriors alumnus Juliet Roberts sings new soul-jazz compositions.

The saxes are contrastingly excellent. On alto, Camilla George leans back to take Horace Silver’s ‘Nica’s Dream’ on a sunnily full-toned, unhurried bop stroll. Tenorist Nubya Garcia is romantically cool and almost cockily off-hand on Joe Henderson’s ‘Jinrikisha’. “This is a project that I hope to see arise,” Pine says, concluding a warmly satisfying, significant night where every player delivered.

– Nick Hasted

– Photo © Roger Thomas

 

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