by Ian Mann
October 02, 2017
Gregory’s warm personality and accomplished singing went down well and I was also impressed with the quality of the instrumentalists, who all acquitted themselves well in their various roles.
Annette Gregory, ‘Celebrating Ella Fitzgerald’, Cawley Hall, Eye, Luston, Leominster, Herefordshire, 30/09/2017.
Back in August I enjoyed a performance from the Midlands based singer Annette Gregory at the 2017 Brecon Jazz Festival.
Billed as “Annette Gregory and Friends” the Festival appearance teamed Gregory and her pianist and musical director John McDonald with a trio of hugely impressive young musicians from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, namely Tom Newitt on tenor sax, Matheus Prado on double bass and Zack Breskal at the drums. This one off collaboration, put together by Festival organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon, worked extremely well with the mix of vocal and instrumental jazz being very well received by the audience at Brecon’s Muse Arts Centre. My review of that event can be read here;
The prospect of seeing Gregory performing with her regular working band in a village hall little more than a ten minute drive from my home town of Leominster was too good resist. Tonight’s event had been organised by John Wilson, Gregory’s manager and the proprietor of The Warwick Studio where Gregory’s recent “Celebrates Ella Fitzgerald” EP was recorded. Although now based in Warwickshire Wilson was born and raised in the Herefordshire village of Luston and had been determined to bring his protégée to Herefordshire to perform in his home village.
Gregory is a jazz vocalist of Jamaican heritage, originally from Manchester but now based in Warwickshire. Inspired to sing jazz by Ella Fitzgerald she studied jazz vocal performance at the Guildhall School of Music in London. For the past two years she has been touring her show “Annette Gregory Celebrates 100 Years of Ella”, commemorating the anniversary of the birth of the “First Lady of Song” in 1917. This has proved to be an extremely popular production with bookings extended into 2018. The singer has also been touring her “Sings Cool Jazz” show but it’s the Fitzgerald show that seems to have captured the public imagination. In the light of the success of the Ella shows 2018 will see Gregory touring with a fresh production, “Annette Gregory Presents Ladies of Jazz” which will see the vocalist expanding her repertoire to encompass the work of other great female jazz singers, ranging from Sarah Vaughan through Chris Connor to Nancy Wilson.
Tonight’s “Celebrating Ella” show featured all of the personnel who appear on the recent EP with Gregory and McDonald joined by Dionne Sambrook on tenor sax, Martyn Lammyman on double bass and Marsh Barton at the drums.
The instrumentalists kicked things off with a gently swinging version of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” with concise solos coming from Sambrook on tenor and McDonald at the piano. Sambrook, one of the driving forces behind the thriving Stratford Jazz Club impressed throughout the evening with her warm toned, blues tinged tenor playing.
The improbably named Barton, acting as MC welcomed Gregory to the stage to sing a swinging, up-tempo version of “All The Things You Are”, the opening track from the Ella EP with McDonald taking the instrumental honours with a solo at the keyboard.
Sticking with EP the quintet followed this with “Too Marvellous For Words” with Sambrook the featured instrumental soloist on a piece gently, but swingingly, propelled by Lammyman’s brisk bass walk and Barton’s crisply brushed drum grooves.
Unaccompanied tenor sax ushered in a vocal version of “Stella By Starlight”, a tune I’m more used to hearing performed as an instrumental. It represented something of a novelty to actually hear the lyrics. Sambrook impressed once more on tenor, as did Lammyman with his melodic bass solo.
Gregory has a rich, deep , soulful voice and a genuine talent for jazz phrasing. Arguably she was at her best when singing ballads, as represented on “My Foolish Heart”, another song from the EP and performed here by just the trio of Gregory, McDonald and Lammyman, with the bassist briefly flourishing the bow at the close.
Gregory informed the audience that “The Way You Look Tonight” was the first Fitzgerald song that she ever sung. Her vivacious vocalising here was well complemented by Sambrook on tenor sax.
These two also impressed on a playful version of George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” with Sambrook’s powerful, bluesy tenor offset by McDonald’s classically inspired keyboard flourishes.
“Autumn Leaves” represented a particularly apposite choice for the time of year with Gregory’s warm hued vocal evoking suitably melodic responses from McDonald at the keyboard, Sambrook on tenor, and Lammyman on double bass.
“Bye Bye Blackbird” saw Gregory encouraging the audience to click their fingers in time with the rhythm and to sing along with the chorus as McDonald and Lammyman added a dash of humour to their solos.
A Latin style arrangement of “How High The Moon” saw Sambrook wielding shakers as well as soloing on tenor sax as she shared the instrumental honours with McDonald at the piano.
The first set concluded with a version of “The Lady Is A Tramp”, sung by Gregory in the first person and dedicated to the unlikely friendship between Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. The arrangement saw Barton enjoying a series of brushed drum breaks as he traded phrases with Sambrook and McDonald.
The second set began in the same manner as the first with the instrumentalists returning to the stage to perform a Latin tinged arrangement of “Stompin’ At The Savoy” which proved to be something of a tenor feature for the consistently impressive Sambrook.
Gregory then emerged to deliver the frankly disturbing lyrics of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” in an arrangement that combined a subtle funk groove with a robust tenor solo from Sambrook and a further solo from McDonald.
Gregory told us something of Fitzgerald’s life story, touching upon her birth on 25th April 2017, her troubled childhood and the winning of an amateur talent competition at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem which launched her on a career to professional stardom. We also heard about her marriage to star bassist Ray Brown and her series of “Songbook” albums celebrating the works of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer et al.
The vocal/ piano duet “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered” representing a stunningly stark and dramatic version of the song and incorporated some rarely heard verses.
A swinging quintet version of “Blue Skies” then lightened the mood with Sambrook on tenor the featured soloist.
The quintet’s own distinctive take on “The Man I Love” also impressed with a strutting soul jazz style arrangement featuring instrumental solos from McDonald and Sambrook. The saxophonist then featured strongly again on an upbeat “Let’s Fall In Love”.
“When A Woman Loves A Man” was a further demonstration of Gregory’s expertise with a ballad with instrumental solos coming from McDonald on piano, Sambrook on tenor and Lammyman on languid, melodic double bass. A word, too, from Barton’s sympathetic and sensitive brushed drum accompaniment.
The quintet remained in ballad mode for a similarly elegant “Embraceable You”, which combined an emotive Gregory vocal with what was arguably Sambrook’s best solo of the night.
A bouncy, swinging, fast paced “All Of Me” quickened the pulse once more with Barton’s vigorously brushed grooves fuelling instrumental solos from McDonald and Sambrook while Lammyman introduced an element of humour into his bowed bass solo.
Before the last number Gregory regaled us with a few details about Fitzgerald’s fabulous career. We learned that she recorded over 2000 songs on over 200 albums and sold more than 40m records worldwide. She was also the first African-American artist to receive a Grammy Award.
The quintet concluded their performance by romping through “Mack The Knife” with Gregory in ebullient form and with Sambrook again featuring powerfully.
Although the audience at Cawley Hall was probably less than Gregory and Wilson would have liked those that were there responded with great enthusiasm and the quintet returned to perform an encore of “Almost Like Being Love” which was ushered in by the combination of voice and double bass and which featured instrumental solos from McDonald on piano and Sambrook on tenor.
Gregory’s warm personality and accomplished singing went down well with the small but supportive audience and I was also impressed with the quality of the instrumentalists, who all acquitted themselves well in their various roles.
It’s not surprising that the “Celebrates Ella” show has been such as a success given the quality of the material that Gregory and her band have to work with, but it’s their singing and playing that helps to bring it alive for audiences. On the evidence of this performance the new show “Ladies of Jazz” should be well worth looking out for in 2018.
In the meantime the EP “Annette Gregory Celebrates Ella Fitzgerald” is well worth checking out. The track listing is;
1. All The Things You Are
2. Too Marvellous For Words
3. When A Woman Loves A Manchester
4. The Man I Love
5. Embraceable You
6. My Foolish Heart
To purchase please visit http://www.annettegregory.info
My thanks to Annette and other members of her team for putting my wife and I on the guest list and speaking with us afterwards.
And it was a nice change to be able to get back to town for a few pints in my local after the end of a gig.
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