by Ian Mann
April 13, 2020
An accomplished recording that demonstrates her obvious love of her chosen material. There’s a breezy charm about her delivery of these old tunes as she breathes fresh life into them.
Claire Victoria Roberts
Claire Victoria Roberts – vocals, violin
with; Grant Russell – bass, Alex Hill – piano, organ, Ian Wynne – piano, Stuart Smith – drums, Dan Smith – guitar, Norman Roberts – violin, double bass, Rachael Gladwin – harp, a.o.
“Cheating Hearts” is the latest album from Manchester based singer, violinist and occasional pianist Claire Victoria Roberts. As a jazz vocalist she names Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Jane Monheit and Amy Winehouse as key influences.
I first became aware of Roberts’ talents at the 2019 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, organised by Black Mountain Jazz in the town of Abergavenny. Roberts was the final act of the Festival and appeared with Cardiff based pianist Guy Shotton under the band name Claire Victoria Duo. Despite not having worked together before the pair presented a successful and enjoyable set of standards based material, incorporating jazz, swing and blues. My account of that performance can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;
Originally from Carmarthen Roberts learned violin from her father and later studied music and composition at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music and at Bangor University. She remains based in Manchester, “it’s the kind of place that just sucks you in” she says.
Roberts is a highly versatile musician who was written for classical ensembles large and small and who has also composed for dance and theatre. She has also worked with Manchester based pianist, composer and improviser Adam Fairhall as part of his “The Imaginary Delta Project”.
A major part of her musical career is as fiddle player, pianist and joint lead vocalist with the busy and popular Manchester based Texas Swing ensemble The Swing Commanders. She also performs duo gigs, usually in the company of a pianist, under the name Claire Victoria Duo, these ranging from lounge events to more formal jazz club performances.
Following my review of her Wall2Wall Festival appearance Roberts was kind enough to forward me a review copy of the latest Swing Commanders album, actually their fourth, “In Transit”. This proved to be great fun, a hugely entertaining release featuring some highly accomplished singing and playing, allied to colourful arrangements of a series of swing era classics. My review of this recording can be viewed here;
More recently Roberts forwarded me a review copy of her début solo album “Cheating Hearts”. This is broadly in the vein of the Swing Commanders release and features a programme of songs sourced from previous musical eras, plus one original composition, the song “Clumsy Goodbye”.
The album features a rotating cast of backing musicians including Swing Commander colleagues Dan Smith (guitar) and Stuart Smith (drums). There are also notable appearances from Claire’s father, Norman Roberts, who plays violin on “Undecided” and slap bass on “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, the latter effectively the title track.
The album commences with a version of the jazz standard “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”. A swinging arrangement is kick started by the huge tone of Grant Russell’s double bass and the opening verse features Roberts’ voice and Russell’s bass only.
Pianist Alex Hill and drummer Stuart Smith then pitch in to help support Roberts’ sassy vocals, these including a fleeting scat episode. There’s also a brief but sparkling piano solo from Hill. It all makes for a rousing and ebullient opener.
“I Should Care” teams Roberts in a duo with guitarist Dan Smith. This elegant arrangement with its sensual vocal and sympathetic guitar accompaniment is also available as a single.
Roberts’ own “Clumsy Goodbye”, the album’s sole original song, finds the singer as part of another duo, this time with pianist Hill. The song has something of the feel of a standard about it and is written very much in that tradition. The witty lyrics tell the tale of a love affair that is over almost as soon as it begins. The evocative, image laden lyrics seem to hark back to the golden age of the ‘Great American’ Songbook’, with Cole Porter a likely influence.
There’s a sidestep into another genre as Roberts tackles country great Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, a song that wouldn’t sound out of place as part of the Swing Commanders’ repertoire. The arrangement features Dan Smith on guitar and Norman Roberts on slap bass. It includes solos from Claire Roberts on violin and Smith on guitar. I’m no great lover of country music but I do appreciate the songs of Hank Williams, so this spirited interpretation of one of his best known songs is just fine by me.
“Undecided” introduces a new line up featuring Ian Wynne on piano, Grant Russell on double bass and Norman Roberts, now on violin. Norman plays a prominent part in the arrangement and delivers a lively solo on a song that formed part of Claire’s repertoire at Abergavenny. Paced by Wynne’s rollicking piano and Russell’s rapid bass the instrumentalists complement a typically sassy and well enunciated vocal.
The ballad “Don’t Explain” features a quartet of Hill on piano, Russell on double bass and Stuart Smith at the drums. A subtly blues tinged arrangement and a sultry, sensuous vocal performance give the music a real ‘torch song’ quality. Russell’s melodic, but deeply resonant double bass plays a substantial part in the arrangement.
Meanwhile Roberts displays her instrumental capabilities with a fluent violin solo as Hill and Smith offer sympathetic, nuanced support.
Roberts sings convincingly in French on “Que Reste-Il De Nous Amour?”, a song that includes an expanded line up featuring Wynne , Dan Smith, Russell, Hill (on organ) and harpist Rachael Gladwin. Other names are also mentioned – Lauren Jones, Ruth Sanderson and Helen Roberts (possibly another relation), so along with Claire herself I suspect that we have a full string quartet here.
The album concludes with “I’ll Dance At Your Wedding”, complete with the “Wedding March” as part of the intro. A playful and charming arrangement features Roberts on violin and vocals and Wynne on piano. There’s a real old fashioned feel to this song that would also make it a good fit for The Swing Commanders.
Roberts’ début album is an accomplished recording that demonstrates her obvious love of her chosen material. There’s a breezy charm about her delivery of these old tunes as she breathes fresh life into them. Her own composition falls neatly into this aesthetic and sounds completely at home here. Her singing is confident, assured and well enunciated throughout, easily adapting to the mood of each song. She also impresses with her contributions on violin and she receives excellent support from her hand picked band of backing musicians, plus recording engineer David Coyle.
There’s nothing earth shattering here but “Cheating Hearts” is a classy piece of work, performed with a relaxed and easy charm, and is an album that should hold a considerable appeal for the members of The Swing Commanders substantial fan base.
That said this isn’t a ‘Texas Swing’ record as such and it should also reach out to more orthodox jazz listeners thanks to the inclusion of several numbers from the jazz standards repertoire in the track listings.
Roberts was due to return to Abergavenny on 26th April 2020 for a club night performance at Black Mountain Jazz. It was intended to be a showcase for the “Cheating Hearts” album with Roberts joined by Hill on piano and Russell on bass.
Unfortunately the event has had to be cancelled due to the Corona Virus emergency. It’s a great shame, as I would have liked to have seen Roberts leading her regular trio and performing songs from this album. However all is not lost as it is hoped that the performance can be re-scheduled later in the year.
In the meantime “Cheating Hearts” is available via Roberts’ website http://www.clairevictoriaroberts.com
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