by Ian Mann
November 11, 2020
A highly impressive achievement, with Bearman’s skilfully constructed arrangements providing the perfect accompaniment to her intelligent, poetic, and occasionally enigmatic, lyrics.
(Bad Mother Records BMR0001)
Fini Bearman – All voices and instruments,
except Zosia Jagodzinska -cello (tracks 1, 2, 4, 5, 10 ,11)
The multi-talented Fini Bearman has appeared on the Jazzmann web pages on a number of occasions in a variety of different contexts.
As a vocalist she has been a key member of groups led by trombonist Raphael Clarkson and keyboard player Tom Cawley.
She appears on the 2018 release “Soldiering On”, a recording by Clarkson’s ensemble Dissolute Society. I had previously been privileged to see the music premièred by a nine piece band, including Bearman and guest pianist Huw Warren, at The Vortex as part of the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival. Clarkson’s highly personal lyrics are delivered by Bearman with great skill and conviction.
Bearman is also part of Catennacio, a quintet led by Cawley that released its eponymous début album in 2019. Inspired by the electric jazz of such bands as Weather Report and Return To Forever this features Bearman singing wordless vocals in a style inspired by Flora Purim, among others.
Bearman and Cawley, plus bassist Calum Gourlay, have also toured with This Is Not America, a trio project that re-imagines the songs of David Bowie in a jazz setting. Cawley and Bearman perform as a duo under the name The Bear & The Fish and Bearman also sings with Midnight Radio, a quintet led by pianist and composer Tom Hewson.
Bearman added backing vocals to vocalist / violinist Alice Zawadzki’s acclaimed début album “China Lane” (2014) and guested on saxophonist Carlos Lopez Real’s 2009 album “Mandorla”, where she sang settings of two poems written by Carol Ann Duffy.
Also a talented artist Bearman’s paintings have adorned the covers of albums by other musicians, notably by the Solstice sextet and by saxophonist Josephine Davies’ Satori Trio.
Bearman studied jazz at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama before completing a Masters at the Jazz Institute in Berlin, where her tutors included the acclaimed guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.
Now an acclaimed educator herself she holds teaching posts at the Guildhall (the institution’s first Professor of Songwriting) and at Leeds Conservatory and the City of London University. She has presented vocal master-classes at educational establishments all over the UK and at Berklee College of Music’s campus in Valencia.
“La Loba”, released in October 2020, is actually Bearman’s fourth solo album, although it’s the first one I’ve heard in full. It follows “Step Up” (2011), her re-imagining of Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” (2015) and the acclaimed “Burn the Boat” (2016). She has also issued a number of EPs, some of them recorded during her time in Berlin.
“Step Up” and “Burn the Boat” revealed Bearman to be a talented songwriter and lyricist, and this process is taken a stage further with “La Loba”. This is more of a solo album in the truest sense, with Bearman also providing the majority of the instrumentation herself, as her liner notes explain;
“In 2019 I began working on a duo project with the wonderful cellist Zosia Jagodzinska. I wanted an opportunity to develop my songwriting, so by stripping the instrumentation back it forced me to concentrate on the details. After some slightly nerve wracking performances where we debuted the music it became clear that this collection of songs was going to become a new album and in May 2019 I set to work. I decided that I was going to make and record it at home, so apart from Zosia’s beautiful cello playing I played everything myself. It was a momentous learning experience with many twists and turns, but I am so proud and excited to share it with you all”.
Bearman credits herself with playing;
guitar, charango, mandolin, ukulele, piano, electric bass, glockenspiel, tenor saxophone, percussion, spoons, etc. etc.
Also playing an important role in the finished product is Tom Cawley, who mixed and mastered the album, with Bearman producing.
“La Loba” means “The Wolf Woman” or the “Wild Woman” and the album and its title track take inspiration from the writings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes (born 1945) and her book “Women Who Run With The Wolves” (1992). More on this later.
The album commences with “And We Climb”, which features Bearman’s pure, well enunciated lead vocal skilfully blended with the largely acoustic instrumentation. Bearman plays an array of guitar related instruments, understated percussion and multi tracks herself to provide backing vocals. Jagodzinska’s cello features, both bowed and plucked, as the music ebbs and flows, with Bearman demonstrating a sure grasp of narrative and dynamics, sometimes making sly melodic allusions to the songs of others. The lyrics sketch a picture of urban decay and economic deprivation and are inspired by stories of children playing in the rubble of East Berlin
Multi-tracked vocals also distinguish “My Ideal”, a beguiling song that expresses the nature of the ‘search’, in both life and love, and the consequent abandoning of ideals. A beguiling, folk like arrangement features layered voices, tautly strummed stringed instruments and the melancholy sound of Jagodzinska’s cello.
“Beholden” adds a note of defiance with its “You’re not beholden to anyone” refrain. The lyrics represent a warning about the perils of social media, with lines like “endless sharing, always comparing” and “it’s a lie that you’ve been sold”. Again Bearman makes effective use of vocal multi-tracking, particularly on the a capella style outro. It’s an effective and highly accessible piece of songwriting and would make an excellent single.
The lyrics to “Empty” depict Bearman visiting a house that she used to call home and the nostalgia and sadness that this evokes. It’s a song of time, loss and love, the melancholic mood enhanced by the addition of cello to Bearman’s sparse acoustic guitar and layered vocals.
The reflective mood continues into “The Endless Clouds”, with its feelings of ennui. The by now familiar mix of acoustic guitars, layered vocals and subtle percussion is augmented by the first real instrumental ‘solo’ of the album thus far. It’s a beautiful excursion on the cello by Jagodzinska that subtly emphasises the mood of the song. Bearman and Jagodzinska have worked together in both Dissolute Society and Midnight Radio and have clearly established an unbreakable musical and personal rapport.
“Song 40” lifts the mood as Bearman describes walking with a loved one on Blythe Hill, a green oasis in the borough of Lewisham, a kind of South London counterpart to Hampstead Heath. The arrangement, allied to a simple but evocative lyric, creates a suitably warm and bucolic mood, one of genuine love and contentment. “I will never tire of this view”, she choruses.
The album packaging contains a quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ “Women Who Run With The Wolves”;
“We all begin as a bundle of bones lost somewhere in the desert, a dismantled skeleton that lies under the sand. It is our work to recover the parts”.
Bearman adds her own definition of “La Loba”, the “Wolf Woman” or “The One Who Knows” (“La Que Sabe”).
“She is an archivist, of feminine intention. She preserves female tradition. She is an archetype of an inimitable and ineffable force which carries a bounty of ideas, images and particularities for humankind.”.
A brief one and a half minute instrumental passage, “La Loba (intro)” is credited as a separate track and features the eerie rustle of percussion, hummed wordless vocals and slivers of piano melody.
The song itself draws its lyrical inspiration from Estes’ book, the words delivered with purpose and clarity within a dramatic arrangement making effective use of piano, guitar, percussion and the astute use of vocal multi-tracking.
“I Deserve” is the only piece not to have its lyrics reproduced on the album packaging. However it is not without words, Bearman singing the lyrics within a framework of multi-tracked vocals, a one woman choir, but one that embraces the use of extended vocal techniques. The lyrics describe Bearman’s ‘perfect partner’, but aside from the romantic context there’s a political undercurrent - “I need someone who understands struggle as well as I do”.
The ‘one woman choir’ is also the basis of “Talk”, a feminist manifesto that evokes the spirits of Virginia Woolf, Malala Yousafzai and Maya Angelou. The words are inspired by Woolf’s essay “A Room Of One’s Own”. Here the multi-tracked voices are augmented by the jagged, percussive bowing of Jagodzinska’s cello.
The album concludes with “Holding On”, a final declaration of hope and defiance, with Jagodzinska’s bowed and plucked cello augmenting Bearman’s singing and playing for the final time.
It’s ironic that the recording of this mainly solo project should have been completed in January 2020, just before the Covid lockdown. More than six months in the making “La Loba” represents a highly impressive achievement, with Bearman’s skilfully constructed arrangements providing the perfect accompaniment to her intelligent, poetic, and occasionally enigmatic, lyrics. It will be interesting to see how many other albums emerge that have been recorded in similar circumstances during lockdown.
Although Bearman is best known as a singer she also impresses with her instrumental and technical ability, while Jagodzinska’s cello contributions also add greatly to the impact of the music.
It’s not exactly a jazz album, or folk either, and in many respects Bearman’s music can be considered ‘sui generis’.
Hopefully the album can find a market, it certainly deserves to. I, for one, found myself being drawn ever more deeply into Bearman’s remarkable sonic and lyrical world as the album unfolded. It’s an intensely personal record, and yet one with universal themes that will be familiar to many listeners.
It’s not an album that is likely to enjoy mass appeal, but it is one that reaches out and transcends musical boundaries. Fans of Joni Mitchell, an acknowledged influence, are likely to enjoy Bearman’s work, as are followers of other slightly ‘left field’ female artists, such as Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Bjork and others.
Besides the music the album artwork is, of course, by Bearman and her website also includes two bright, quirky and highly enjoyable animations for the songs “Beholden” and “La Loba”. Please visit http://www.finibearman.com
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