Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Esther Miller

Dream Dancing

by Ian Mann

July 21, 2006


Miller's reputation nationally should continue to grow.

South African émigré Esther Miller has been based in Birmingham for a number of years and has become a very popular figure on the Midlands jazz scene. It is easy to see why-Ms. Miller is a very talented singer with an engaging personality. This lavishly packaged album seems to be an attempt to bring her to national attention.

The personnel on the album includes old Birmingham based colleagues together with musicians from the London scene. The material is a mix of familiar standards, some more adventurous outside material and one original co-written by Miller and her pianist Gerry Spencer. Birmingham based Spencer is a long-term collaborator and is responsible for all the arrangements on the album. Spencer does a fine job. He is a low-key performer who concentrates on ensemble playing rather than solos but nonetheless is at the heart of all the good things on the record.

Miller likes to give her musicians plenty of solo space. Each number incorporates at least one instrumental solo but Spencer’s intelligent arrangements ensure that these are pithy and cogent and never rambling or self-indulgent.

The opening number “Bernie’s Tune” features Miller’s vocal gymnastics together with a trumpet solo from Bryan Corbett whose warm, velvety Freddie Hubbard inspired trumpet and flugel horn graces the album. Karen Sharp’s smooth, soulful, swinging tenor sax also gets an outing as does the astonishingly nimble trombone of Mark Nightingale.

The more laid back “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” features Miller’s pure well-enunciated voice, Corbett on flugel and the conversational guitar of Jez Franks.

The principal soloists (Corbett, Sharp, Franks And Nightingale) feature throughout the album but all are effective ensemble players and accompanists and offer top quality support to the singer. The rhythm section are also excellent and understated. Zoltan Dekany, who made such a big impression on the Rob Lavers album “Stretch”, is on bass. Corbett’s regular drummer Neil Bullock fills the drum chair. Normally a very powerful player Bullock shows a different side of his musical personality with this measured, tasteful performance.

Miller is in good voice throughout the album equally at home on ballads as on high tempo tunes. “The Night We Called It A Day” is particularly attractive and her reading of Cole Porter’s title tune is also highly effective. The words to Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debbie/Only Child” are however a little too saccharine for my tastes.

More effective is the Spencer/Miller original “Storm Clouds” presumably describing a real life event. Spencer’s rolling and tumbling arrangement captures the spirit of the moment perfectly and summons up fine solos from Corbett on trumpet, Sharp on tenor, the fleet fingered Dekany on bass and Franks on guitar.

Miller’s clear and wistful voice is just right on the Brazilian flavoured ballad “Tristeza De Amar” and the same qualities are also apparent on “We’ll Be Together Again” with it’s light, swinging blues feel also featuring solos from Sharp and Nightingale.

Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing” may be a tune that many think has been done to death but Spencer’s imaginative arrangement gives Miller the chance to scat effectively and allows Bullock to throw off the shackles and give the tubs a bit of a pounding. Sharp ,Corbett and Dekany are given solo space too.

“My Funny Valentine” is another one we’ve heard a bit too often but Miller’s tender reading and pure well-enunciated voice make this version worthwhile. Spencer’s piano offers good support together with Dekany and Bullock on brushes. It is a favourite tune of Corbett’s too and he adds a brief, suitably mournful solo.

Jobim’s “Dindi” brings back the Brazilian feel and elicits a warm vocal performance from Miller.

The Latin theme continues on the remarkable “Chega De Saudade (No More Blues)” a joyous fusion of Latin music with the blues. Miller sings in Portugese, Bullock has another bash and everybody seems to enjoy themselves.

This would have been a good way to round the album off but instead we get a version of “Alfie” to close. This is another tune that is over familiar and although Miller makes a fair job of it and Spencer shows his lightness of touch on piano I could still have done without it. Perhaps it should just have been scheduled elsewhere allowing the album to close with the rousing “No More Blues”.

This is only a minor quibble about one of the better vocal albums I’ve heard this year. Miller’s voice, Spencer’s arrangements and the excellent musicianship from the rest of the band lift this album well above the average crop of releases by jazz vocalists. It deserves to do well and Miller’s reputation nationally should continue to grow. I hope it doesn’t get so big that she doesn’t play at ‘The Leominster Blue Note’ venue anymore.

blog comments powered by Disqus