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Laura Collins

Baltimore Oriole


by Ian Mann

July 12, 2010


This collection of well chosen, often challenging material demonstrates both her singing and arranging skills and the playing by an all star band is excellent throughout.

Laura Collins

“Baltimore Oriole”

(Spotlite Records SPJ CD 580)

Subtitled “Introducing Laura Collins” this is the début CD from this Cardiff born, now Birmingham based young vocalist. Initially a choral scholar at Cambridge University Collins switched musical allegiances and subsequently studied jazz performance at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music. Her vocal tutors included Lee Gibson, Anita Wardell, Tina May and Norma Winstone and some of their undoubted class has rubbed off on the young singer. Collins is also a talented arranger, responsible for all but one of the distinctive arrangements on this hugely sophisticated album. 

Released on Tony Williams’ Spotlite label, “Baltimore Oriole” is a sophisticated set of covers ranging from jazz standards to imaginative arrangements of pop tunes. The selection covers a broad stylistic and dynamic range that demonstrates Collins’ singing and arranging talents to the full. She is helped enormously by an excellent trio featuring pianist Barry Green, bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Matt Skelton, all tasteful and highly experienced players. Sparkling guest performances come from guitarist Sam Dunn and veteran trumpet/flugel horn player Dick Pearce, a one time member of Ronnie Scott’s and Stan Tracey’s groups.

The album commences with Collins’ version of Steve Swallow’s tune “Ladies In Mercedes”. Originally written as an instrumental piece for Swallow’s one time boss, vibraphonist Gary Burton, the tune became a song when English singer Norma Winstone added witty, sometime risqué lyrics to Swallow’s infectious, Latin flavoured vamp. As a song it’s now become something of a standard for adventurous female vocalists, having been covered by Tina May among many others. Collins more than does justice to the piece and reveals a real talent for jazz phrasing, clear enunciation and scatting. The support from the trio plus guitarist Dunn is intelligent, sure footed and supple.

Lerner and Loewe’s “The Street Where You Live” is taken at an unusually fast clip with the singer responding well to the challenges of her own arrangement. There’s dynamic swinging support from the trio with Brown’s bass briefly in the spotlight. Guitarist Dunn also shines with a mercurial, boppish solo.

At the other end of the spectrum is a beautiful slowed down version of the ballad “The Night We Called It A Day”, sung by Collins with real feeling, drawing out both the emotive qualities and the sheer craftsmanship of Tom Adair’s lyrics. The lyricism of Green and Brown and the delicate brushwork of Skelton complement the singer perfectly. 

Collins puts her own stamp on an attractive mid tempo version of the show tune"Too Close For Comfort” which also acts as a vehicle for the Green’s considerable piano skills. The arrangement is by another of the UK’s finest jazz singers, the great Claire Martin.

Hoagy Carmichael’s title tune was written in 1942 but it’s a song that sounds remarkably contemporary. Collins’ highly arrangement sees her open the tune with just Skelton’s colourful drumming for company. Elsewhere she phrases beautifully, just behind the beat, and Dunn’s subtly blues tinged guitar solo is also a treat. He’s followed by the flowing lyricism of Green before Collins and Skelton cleverly bring the song full circle.

Trumpeter Dick Pearce makes his bow with a velvety flugel solo on a clever waltz time arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is The Ocean”. Collins’ vocals are warm and emotive and Green and his colleagues characteristically sympathetic.

“But Not For Me” is a chance for Collins to show off her vocal chops in exuberant fashion. The piece is also a showcase for Green’s mercurial piano, Pearce’s nimble muted trumpet and Skelton’s crisp, brushed drum breaks. 

Perhaps the centre piece of the album is a pared down but beautiful version of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”, once a huge hit for country singer Glen Campbell. Sung from the waiting woman’s perspective it’s essentially a feature for Collins’ voice and Green’s thoughtful, delicate piano accompaniment. The spacious arrangement ensures that each note hangs on the air and that maximum emotion is wrung out of the song. Collins learnt classical cello in her youth and it’s her playing that can be heard in the closing stages of the piece.

“Go Away, Little Boy” is another example of Collins switching the gender/viewpoint of a song. The Gerry Goffin/Carole King song is sung wistfully by Collins with only Jeremy Brown’s rich, rounded bass tones for company. It’s another example of a pared down arrangement being beautifully executed.

Dave Frishberg’s witty, literate, acerbic songs are becoming an increasingly popular vehicle for sophisticated singers such as Collins. His “Blizzard Of Lies” is given a swinging arrangement with Green and the trio in fine form. Collins’ playful, well enunciated vocals bring out the twinkling, acid wit of Frishberg’s words.

The closing “A Beautiful Friendship” swings beautifully and encapsulates all the album’s virtues. Collins scats and soars, guests Pearce and Dunn add pithy, cogent solos and the trio groove effortlessly.

Collins has acquired a considerable reputation for her live work in the Midlands and the Welsh Marches with her regular musical partners pianist Paul Sawtell and saxophonist Casey Greene. She’s also worked with figures such as Alan Barnes, Bruce Adams, Andy Cleyndert, Dave Cottle and Tony Levin. Earlier this year I saw her play an enjoyable and often humorous show in Ludlow with a pick up band including guitarist Simon King. Several tunes from the album including the title track, “The Night We Called It A Day”, “How Deep Is The Ocean” and “Go Away Little Boy” were included in the set alongside several other jazz standards and a Welsh carol that emphasised her roots. There was also a very funny adaptation of “Route 66” that namechecked several of her West Midlands haunts among them “Moseley, Coseley, Wolverhampton”.

However “Baltimore Oriole"deserves to take her to another level and to bring her a national reputation. This collection of well chosen, often challenging material demonstrates both her singing and arranging skills and the playing by an all star band is excellent throughout. The pinpoint production and engineering by Tony Williams and Dick Hammett serves both singer and musicians well and all in all this is a very classy package.

Collins is launching the album in London on July 13th 2010 at the 606 Club with trio augmented by guest saxophonist Jean Toussaint. A week or so later (21st July) there’s a Welsh launch date at the Jazzland Club in Swansea. A lovely lady as well as a fine singer I wish her well for these performances. See for full details.

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