by Ian Mann
January 17, 2012
A classy and sophisticated piece of work from a stellar UK line up. The singing and playing is excellent throughout.
(33 Records 33 Jazz 222)
Zoe Schwarz is an experienced and highly competent jazz and blues vocalist based in Poole, Dorset. With her husband and guitarist Rob Koral she fronts the all star quintet to be heard on this 2011 33 Records release, an album that concentrates primarily on the couple’s blues leanings with the help
of pianist Gareth Williams, bassist Steve Thompson and drummer Paul Robinson. It’s a stellar UK line up and the singing and playing is excellent throughout.
Although now based well away from the hurly burly of London Schwarz and Koral are musicians with national reputations and perform all over the country at jazz clubs and festivals with the emphasis now on the South West, often as a duo. Gareth Williams is a fiery piano soloist and a band-leader in his own right and Paul Robinson, once of Jeff Clyne’s Turning Point and now of the re-activated Back Door also spent many years as drummer of choice for the great Nina Simone. Bassist Steve Thompson, although perhaps less well known has played with many jazz and blues luminaries making him the ideal choice for this project. He forms a swinging and reliable rhythm section with the excellent Robinson.
In Schwarz’s words “the idea of Blue Commotion was to lean on the blues side of jazz” with the instrumentation and personnel chosen to retain a jazz sensibility and feel as the quintet explore the blues classics of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Leroy Carr and others. There are a clutch of original songs in the blues idiom plus Schwarz’s interpretation of “Stormy Blues” by Billie Holiday, the singer who inspired her in the first place.
Leroy Carr’s “Blues Before Sunrise” gets the album off to a fine start with Schwarz’s sultry vocal underscored by Thompson’s deep bass growl and with elegant punctuation from Koral and Williams and an excellent solo from the guitarist.
“No Good Man” (written by Sammy Gallop, Irene Higginbotham and Dan Fisher) was covered by both Billie Holiday and Nina Simone making it a natural choice for this group. Schwarz brings a Holiday like vulnerability to this slow blues with Williams taking the instrumental honours with a tasteful, pithy piano solo.
Ray Charles’ “Ain’t That Fine” ups the tempo with Schwarz playful and Williams ebullient as Thompson and Robinson swing ferociously. Koral emerges mid tune with a scorching guitar solo.
St. Louis Jimmy Oden’s “Going Down Slow” is classic blues and the quintet tear into it with conviction with Schwarz’s vocals both soulful and powerful. Koral’s solo acknowledges an early influence, the great Eric Clapton.
These days it sounds strange to hear Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Babe” performed by anybody other than Led Zeppelin but Schwarz and her colleagues make a fair fist of it with Schwarz’s sensual voice combining well with Koral’s soaring guitar and Williams’ authentically bluesy piano.
The album’s three original songs are sequenced together. First comes the Schwarz/Koral composition “If I Didn’t Care”, an unpretentious blues/boogie shuffle extolling the virtues of their relationship. Williams weighs in with a rollicking piano solo.
The slow blues “She Was Just a Name” features music by Schwarz and Koral plus lyrics by their friend Roger Parsons, the words a homage to the singer herself (“a little tribute to Zoe from Roger Parsons”). It may represent a little self indulgence but it’s great fun with a real blues feel and with more strong solos from Koral and Williams plus some memorable drum fills from Robinson.
“Too Darn Rich To Be Happy” is Schwarz’s caustic comment on the idiocies of the rat race (she once had a high powered job in the City and sing part time) and is another playful blues boogie with Williams and Koral again in sparkling form. A song for our times perhaps?
The songs “He’s Funny That Way” (by Charles Daniels and Richard Whiting) and “Stormy Blues” take Schwarz and company back into Billie Holiday territory, the latter tune written by Billie herself. There are a host of Holiday imitators around but Schwarz is one of the best and also manages to bring something of herself to these interpretations, especially on the hard hitting version of “Stormy Blues”.
If it sounded a little odd to hear a woman singing “I Can’t Quit You Babe” then hearing Schwarz tackle Muddy Waters’ ultra macho “I’m Ready” sounds even stranger. Not that I disliked it, it’s still great fun and the Blue Commotion quintet attack it with gusto. The closing slow blues “Sitting On Top Of The World” then ends the album on a suitably Billie-ish note.
“Blue Commotion” is a classy and sophisticated piece of work that benefits from a typically polished 33 Records production. There’s nothing strikingly original here but everybody plays and sings great and every one of these experienced professionals sounds as if they’re having a good time. Blue Commotion is now a band as well as an album and the quintet will be taking to the road later in 2012 (dates below).
Zoe and Rob also sent me a copy of their 2009 duo album “Celebration” (also 33 Records), a recording featuring just voice and guitar. It is also a highly sophisticated recording that displays the kind of closeness and intimacy that you’d expect from this pair of soul mates. In the main the album concentrates on songs from the “Great American Songbook” giving Schwarz the chance to demonstrate both her jazz phrasing abilities and her mature interpretative skills. Koral’s playing is the epitome of good taste and he represents the perfect instrumental foil for his vocalist partner.
The album features one original song by the duo (“Let’s Explain, a moving and heartfelt homage to Billie Holiday) plus a piece by Koral and singer Sue Hawker with whom the guitarist once played in the fondly remembered fusion group Sketch back in the late 70’s/early 80’s (there was even an Old Grey Whistle Test appearance!). Schwarz also tries her hand at “vocalese” by adding two witty verses of her own to the hipster blues “You Don’t Learn That In School” and there’s another version of “sitting On Top Of The World” which again closes the album.
“Celebration” is an enjoyable album in it’s own right, immaculately performed by two musicians still at the top of their game and it represents a good companion to “Blue Commotion” plus an excellent souvenir of the duo’s intimate live shows (I once saw them open for Gary Burton and Pat Metheny in the foyer of the Lighthouse Arts Centre, Poole).
The details and tracklisting for “Celebration” are as follows;
Zo? Schwarz & Rob Koral
Zo? Schwarz - vocals, Rob Koral guitar
Label: 33 JAZZ
Catalogue No. 33JAZZ 201
Words & Music by
Cry Me A River
Let’s Fall In Love
My Funny Valentine
When I Grow Too Old To Dream
Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby
Boulevard Of Broken Dreams
The Man I Love
You Don’t Learn That In School
Alfred/Fisher (verses 3&4 by Schwarz)
Until The Real Thing Comes Along
BabyBaby All The Time
That Old Feeling
Sitting On Top Of The World
Blue Commotion tour dates 2012;
Friday 6th April 2012 8pm Tickets £ 10
Bridport Arts Centre, South Street, West Dorset
Monday 9th April 2012 8:30pm
Clifford Arms, Shaldon, Devon
Friday 13h April - 8:30pm
Jazz at the George, Christchurch Jazz Club, East Dorset
Sunday 15th April 2012 - 8pm
Ipswich Jazz Club, The California Club, Suffolk,
Tuesday 17th April 2012 - 8:30
Worthing Jazz Club, The Hare & Hounds, West Sussex
Wednesday 2nd May 2012 9pm
Jazz at the Lescar, Hunters Bar, Sheffield
Thurs 10th May 2012 -
The Beaverwood, Chislehurst, Kent
Sunday 13th May Sunday lunchtime special
Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, Soho, London
Tuesday 15th May 9pm
Jazz at Dempsey’s, Cardiff, South Glamorgan, Wales
Thursday 17th May 2012 8pm
Spring Arts Centre, Havant, Hampshire
Friday 18th May 7:30pm
The Regent Centre, Christchurch, Dorset
Tuesday 22nd May - 8:30
Marlow Jazz Club, Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Friday 25th May 12:30 - 2:30 (lunchtime)
The Spice of Life, Cambridge Circus, London
Monday 18th June 8:30pm
Southampton Jazz Club, The Soul Cellar, West Marlands Road, Hampshire
Thursday 21st June 2012 8:30pm
Sound Cellar Jazz at the Blue Boar, Poole, South Dorset
Saturday 14th July 2012
Marlborough Jazz Festival, Wilts
Thursday 19th July 2012 8:30pm
A Boogaloo Promotion, The Maltings, Farnham, Surrey
Further details plus news of numerous other performances from;
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