by Ian Mann
March 13, 2023
Ian Mann enjoys a performance by London based vocalist Esther Bennett with a one off Midlands quintet and also takes a look at two of her recordings.
Esther Bennett Quintet, Kidderminster Jazz Club, 45 Live Venue, Kidderminster, 09/03/2022.
Esther Bennett – vocals, Wendy Kirkland – keyboard, vocals, Pat Sprakes – guitar, Wayne Matthews – six string electric bass, Aaron Maloney – drums
London based vocalist and songwriter Esther Bennett has been a long time friend of The Jazzmann and the site has regularly publicised her live performances around the London area.
It was only when I recently reviewed her new mini-album “Home Is Where The Arts Is”, a digital only release, that I learned that she is originally from Birmingham and retains a fierce love for, and pride in, her native city.
“Home Is Where The Art Is” combines jazz /spoken word pieces with more conventional song performances and is a highly personal piece of work. Bennett’s poetry on the spoken word pieces is highly evocative and often references the Birmingham of her youth, particularly on the standout track “My Birmingham”, a collaboration with the composer and orchestrator Didier Messidoro. Other contributors to the “Home Is Where The Art Is” recording are keyboard player Terence Collie and flautist Duncan Lamont Jr. My review of the album can be found here;
Bennett is a respected figure on the London jazz scene who released her début album “Just in Time” as long ago as 2005. This was produced by the great Ian Shaw, himself a previous visitor to Kidderminster Jazz Club, and the album was launched at London’s 606 Jazz Club.
Bennett works regularly with Collie, with whom she has established a fruitful songwriting partnership. The duo released the lockdown inspired EP “Safe Places” in 2020.
She also works with saxophonist Hannah Horton in the project “Two Women of Jazz”. Live shows see the pair backed backed by a piano / bass / drums trio.
Bennett has a particular affinity for the songs of the late Duncan Lamont Sr. and collaborated with fellow vocalists Sarah Moule and Daniela Clynes on the EP “The Duncan Lamont Songbook”, which was also released in 2020. Recorded before the death of Lamont Sr. in 2019 the recording features his saxophone playing and also that of his son Duncan Lamont Jr., with whom Bennett is continuing the project.
Tonight’s visit to Kidderminster represented something of a ‘return to roots’ for Bennett, who had spent a few days visiting friends and family in a snowy Birmingham before making the short journey to Kidderminster. She was accompanied by a one off quintet comprised entirely of Midlanders. The husband and wife duo of guitarist Pat Sprakes and pianist / vocalist Wendy Kirkland had travelled down from Derbyshire and were joined by the Warwickshire rhythm section of Wayne Matthews (bass), and the impressive young drummer Aaron Maloney, both from Coventry.
The quintet gelled very quickly over the course of a couple of sets, inevitably comprised mainly of jazz standards, but also featuring some interesting song selections from outside the usual jazz canon. I was also pleased that the performance also included a number of items from the “Home Is Where The Art Is” recording.
Tonight represented my first visit to KJC’s new home, the 45 Live venue, normally a rock club. It also proved to be eminently suitable for jazz with the members of the audience seated cabaret style, as they had been at the Club’s previous location in the Corn Exchange Room just across the road at Kidderminster Town Hall. The Town Hall is currently undergoing an extensive refurbishment, hence the move, but promoters, musicians and audience alike all seemed happy enough with 45 Live and the Club should continue to flourish in its new location.
I missed the first event there in February when the visitors were the J4 Quartet from Cardiff, a group playing a set of interesting arrangements of Beatles tunes. They’re a band I’ve seen previously in both Brecon and Monmouth. I’m informed that their visit to Kidderminster attracted a sizeable audience and I also anticipate a big turnout on April 6th when saxophonist Xhosa Cole visits with his quartet.
The thing most listeners will miss about the Town Hall is its magnificent grand piano, an instrument that was greatly appreciated by musicians such as the Swedish pianist Daniel Karlsson, and, of course, Wendy Kirkland who played KJC’ s very first gig at the Town Hall back in October 2019. Review here;
Tonight Kirkland deployed a Korg electric keyboard, which broadened the range of sounds available to her, but still wasn’t really a substitute for the grand at the Town Hall. Kirkland was to deploy an acoustic piano sound for her solo on the opening “Squeeze Me”, a swinging rendition led by Bennett’s playful vocals and with further solos coming from Sprakes on guitar and Matthews on six string electric bass plus a series of lively drum breaks from Maloney as he exchanged phrases with Sprakes. The song served as an excellent introduction to all the members of the quintet.
“Angel Eyes” was presented as a kind of blues ballad with Bennett’s smoky vocals supplemented by solos from Kirkland on piano and Matthews on bass. Bennett is a generous bandleader who affords plenty of space to her instrumentalists.
From the recent “Home Is Where The Art Is” album came “Rio De Janeiro Blue”, a song recorded by Randy Crawford on her “Secret Combination” album, a recording that formed one of the cornerstones of Bennett’s youth. Bennett remains a down to earth Brummie and humour is a key element of her live shows. “I’ve forgotten my shaky egg!” she exclaimed, before proceeding to make cuica like noises vocally. The choice of this song also reflected the love of Kirkland and Sprakes for Brazilian music and the pair both featured as soloists, Sprakes on guitar and Kirkland at the keyboard, this time deploying an electric piano sound. Matthews also featured on six string bass. This was a song that was particularly well suited to Bennett’s voice and drew warm applause from the Kidderminster audience.
Bennett then challenged herself by singing the Mark Murphy arrangement of the Oliver Nelson song “Stolen Memories”. A gift for phrasing ensures that Bennett is a very distinctive vocalist and she was well supported here by solos from Kirkland on piano, Sprakes on guitar and Matthews on bass.
A funk element was introduced on a George Benson inspired version of “On Broadway” with instrumental solos from Sprakes on guitar and Kirkland on piano. It’s a highly versatile song, I rather like Neil Young’s angry, cacophonous version on his “Freedom” album and was surprised when Bennett later told me that she was unaware of it.
The first set ended with Bennett paying tribute to Duncan Lamont Senior on the song “There Ain’t Nothing But The Blues”, introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano from Kirkland, with Bennett joining to create a voice and piano duo. Subsequent instrumental features showcased the talents of Kirkland on piano and Matthews on liquid electric bass. Bennett’s love for Lamont and his music were evident from her heartfelt vocals. I’d been aware of Lamont’s skill as a saxophonist for a long time, only discovering his remarkable talent as a songwriter much later and great credit is due to Bennett, Moule, Clynes and others, among them the late, great Tine May for keeping Lamont’s legacy alive.
Set two commenced with an item from “Home Is Where The Art Is”. “The Blissful Fool” is that most jazz like of creations, a contrafact with Esther Bennett’s melody and words underpinned by the harmonic chord sequence of that most famous of jazz standards, “All of Me”, written by Gerard Marks and Seymour Simons. The piece retains the feel of a jazz standard but with sassy 21st century lockdown inspired lyrics, plus a scat vocal episode. Tonight’s instrumental solos came from Kirkland on piano, Sprakes on guitar and Matthews on bass, plus a series of playful scat and drum exchanges between Bennett and Maloney. Bennett offered a prize to any audience member who could spot the original. Congratulations to the winner, who was very fast out of the blocks and received a free copy of “Just In Time”.
A song that has been in Bennett’s repertoire for a long time and which appears on that “Just In Time” album is Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”, a song that has been covered by other jazz performers but is not quite a ‘standard’. Bennett clearly has a great affinity for the song and her evocative vocals were augmented by solos from Kirkland on electric piano and Matthews on electric bass.
Bennett’s formative years In multi-cultural Birmingham and her love of all kinds of black music was reflected in a jazz/ reggae arrangement of Bob Marley’s “Wait In Vain”, propelled by Matthews’ dubby bass lines and Maloney’s crisp, syncopated drum grooves, with Kirkland deploying both electric piano and organ sounds at the keyboard. Bennett’s obvious joy in the delivery of the lyrics was complemented by instrumental solos from Sprakes and Matthews.
Kirkland’s prowess as a vocalist is well known to jazz aficionados and it was always likely that she and Bennett would sing together at some point. Bennett generously let Kirkland choose the song and the pair alternated lines as they duetted on “Better Than Anything” with Sprakes taking the instrumental honours on guitar.
Next came another item from the Duncan Lamont Songbook, a version of “I Told You So”, a song previously recorded by Natalie Cole. Lamont was a songwriter in the style of the “Great American Songbook” composers and his perceptive and intelligent lyrics rank right up there with the masters. Bennett gave a sensitive, intimate performance here, sympathetically supported by Maloney’s sensitive brushwork and Matthews’ languid electric bass undertow.
Energy levels were raised once more on “You Go To My Head”, a song recorded from the “Home Is Where The Art Is” album. Bennett’s lively Latin style arrangement of the song is another to have been inspired by a Mark Murphy recording. Tonight’s performance was something of a feature for Maloney, who took an extended solo in the wake of previous features for Kirkland on electric piano, Sprakes on guitar and Matthews on bass. Kirkland also provided some backing vocals.
The audience at an admittedly rather chilly 45 Live loved this and the inevitable encore was the standard “I Thought About You”, introduced by Matthews at the bass. The music quickly gathered momentum as the rest of the band picked up on the groove, with Kirkland adding some scat vocals to her piano solo. Sprakes and Matthews were also to feature with extended solos as a delighted Bennett sat back and revelled in the talents of this one off quintet.
On a very unpleasant evening in terms of weather conditions this was still a well attended and successful event and Bennett and her band clearly enjoyed their time on stage immensely – as did the audience. Bennett presented the show with enthusiasm and a down to earth Brummie charm and although the one off nature of the group resulted in a few on stage consultations nobody seemed to mind too much. The singer was generous in terms of solo time and all the instrumentalists flourished in the allotted space and acquitted themselves admirably. I’d seen Kirkland, Sprakes and Matthews before and knew what to expect from them, but I was also hugely impressed with Maloney who gave an impressively mature performance behind the drums.
My thanks to all five musicians for speaking with me at half time and after the show and it was a pleasure to meet Esther in person for the first time. In my review of the “Home Is Where The Art Is” album I commented;
“One also suspects that a rendition of the album as a whole would be highly effective in a live performance situation, particularly if the “My Birmingham” video could be incorporated into the proceedings. I can just imagine Bennett narrating the piece backed by Sid Peacock’s Surge Orchestra with the video projected behind them”.
Esther didn’t know of Sid at the time despite his Birmingham connections, I suspect he may have arrived in the city from Belfast at around the time Esther left for London. However she has now checked him out and made contact, and it appears that some kind of collaboration may result. It’s gratifying to know that The Jazzmann has an influence and can help in bringing members of the jazz community together.
I’m also grateful to Esther for gifting me a copy of the “Just In Time” album, which makes for excellent listening. Again the album features a mix of jazz standards and ‘pop’ tunes, among the latter “At Seventeen” and surprisingly effective jazz arrangements of Elton John’s “Honky Cat” , Aretha Franklin’s “Runnin’ Out Of Fools”, Everything But The Girl’s “Bitter Sweet” and Leo Sayer’s “Unlucky in Love”. More conventional jazz fare includes the title track, Duke Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” and George Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”.
The band includes pianist Leon Greening, drummer Mark Fletcher, bassists Oli Hayhurst and Simon Little, flautist Steve Rubie, saxophonist Alex Garnett and guitarist Ramsey McInnes. Producer Ian Shaw also appears on backing vocals. As an album it still sounds fresh and exciting and is well worth checking out.
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