Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
A fascinating blend of jazz and classical structures mixed with literature and poetry. A quietly ambitious and often very beautiful album which succeeds brilliantly on its own terms.
(Moletone Records 003)
Bebelfish is a new quartet co-led by vocalist Brigitte Beraha and pianist Barry Green. On their début album they are joined by the vastly experienced rhythm pairing of Chris Laurence (double bass) and Paul Clarvis (drums and percussion).
Bereha is a highly versatile vocalist capable of singing in a variety of jazz styles. She is particularly adept at using her voice as an instrument as evidenced on her adventurous solo recording “Flying Dreams” released on the F-re Presents label back in 2008 and reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Green is one of the most versatile pianists around and has a particular affinity for working with singers. He also has a fruitful musical partnership with Swedish born, London based vocalist Emilia Martensson, their album “and so it goes…” was released on Babel earlier on this year. In a more orthodox jazz context Green is an important component of alto saxophonist Martin Speake’s excellent Generations quartet and has also led his own trio featuring American musicians Ben Street (bass) and Jeff Williams (drums) releasing the album “The Music Of Chance” in 2008. Green is a busy guy, constantly in demand, a musician’s musician, but seems to be rather taken for granted and generally under appreciated by the jazz public at large.
“The Music Of Chance” appeared on Green’s own Moletone label as does this début Babelfish recording. The music of Babelfish is inspired by the worlds of classical music and literature and features settings of Benjamin Britten plus original compositions utilising the words of writers such as E.E. Cummings and Raymond Carver. The album is dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased jazz pianist Pete Saberton (1950-2012).
The recording commences with the song “Catch Me The Moon” written by bassist Dave Manington, prolific Loop Collective member and leader of the sextet Riff Raff, a group that also features the voice of Beraha. The tune which includes lyrics by Beraha originally appeared on the Riff Raff album “Hullabaloo” and is Manington’s attempt to write a jazz ballad whilst simultaneously referencing classical composers such as Vaughan Williams, Britten and John Ireland. Beraha’s gently emotive voice and lyrics are crucial to the song’s success but the arrangement also offers plenty of room for the instrumentalists to stretch out with Laurence and Green both contributing eloquent and lyrical solos.
“The Stream In The Valley” is one of Benjamin Britten’s many adaptations of traditional folk songs. The beauty of the melody, movingly sung by Beraha masks the sadness and resignation of the lyrics. There’s an almost hymnal quality about the tune and Green and Laurence are again at their most lyrical and fluent with the gentle patter of Clarvis’ drums and percussion the perfect punctuation.
Green’s quirky “Kirk Bats” is based around repetitive rhythmic patterns and features the wordless voice of Beraha soaring above. It’s a good example of the vocalist’s abilities in this area and like much of her singing owes a significant debt to the style of the great Norma Winstone, doyenne of discerning British female jazz vocalists.
The brooding “Poem For F” which deals with the subject of emotional jealousy was written by the prolific American contemporary classical composer Ned Rorem (born 1923). Rorem has written across a broad spectrum from symphonies and concertos to art song and is well known for his settings of poems. This intimate performance by the Babelfish quartet serves Rorem’s work well with Beraha investing the song with emotive depth and a quiet dignity sympathetically supported by the rest of the group.
Beraha’s own “Fatchi-Chuna” is a showcase for her remarkable talent for wordless vocal improvising, her work is too inventive and adventurous to be demeaned by the rather condescending term “scat”. Green also impresses here, soloing expansively in a loosely structured piece that also involves a brushed drum episode from the always tasteful Clarvis.
Another Beraha original “Sometime” also demonstrates the flexibility of her soaring, wordless singing. With a strong melody and a curious sense of Englishness this sounds a little like chamber jazz crossed with Soft Machine. Laurence’s bass provides the bridge between the wordless vocal section and a closing verse featuring a pithy Beraha lyric.
“Popular Mechanics” is the most unusual track on the record, a Green setting of the words of the late American poet and novelist Raymond Carver (1938-88). The libretto (if you will) consists of the closing lines of Carver’s 1977 piece “Little Things” aka “Mine” aka “Popular Mechanics”, a kind of cross between a poem and a short story. Green’s setting sees Beraha pulling Carver’s words increasingly out of shape - it’s brief, unusual and more than a little disturbing and needs to be heard to be fully appreciated.
The inclusion of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Falando De Amor” reflects Beraha’s ongoing fascination with the sounds of Brazilian music. Her voice combines with Laurence’s fluent double bass and Clarvis’ exotic percussion with Green’s comping holding it all together.
Beraha’s “The Apple Tree” represents the group at their most tender and reflective and highlights the remarkable chemistry between Beraha and Green. The lyrics may speak of love, loss and regret but there are moments when Beraha’s wordless voice takes flight impressively shadowed by Green with Laurence and Clarvis providing understated and empathic support.
“Babel Fish” itself (the title presumably borrowed from Douglas Adams) is another typically quirky offering from Green based about tricky but playful rhythmic patterns and with Beraha occasionally stepping beyond the usual range of wordless vocals to venture into the kind of abstract sound worlds inhabited by singers such as Julie Tippetts and Maggie Nicols.
The album concludes with Green’s beautiful setting of E.E. Cummings words of love, loss and acceptance “It May Not Always Be So”. Beraha’s gently emotive vocal, Green’s sensitive and lyrical piano accompaniment plus Laurence’s woody, resonant bass and Clarvis’ minimalist percussion combine to create an air of fragile delicacy.
“Babelfish” may be chamber jazz but it’s a lyrical, thoughtful and quietly adventurous example of the genre. Although clearly inspired by Norma Winstone Beraha brings much of herself to the performance and the music is a fascinating blend of jazz and classical structures mixed with literature and poetry. There’s a quiet beauty about much of this music but also a degree of intellectual rigour. All four musicians sing and play superbly with Laurence and Clarvis, both of whom straddle the jazz/classical divide, the perfect partners for the younger duo of Beraha and Green (indeed the singer and pianist sometimes perform this music in a duo format). Some listeners may miss the element of conventional jazz swing and find the quartet’s output a little too precious and rarefied. However “Babelfish” is a quietly ambitious and often very beautiful album which succeeds brilliantly on its own terms.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.