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Jo Lawry


by Ian Mann

March 08, 2023


“Acrobats” impresses with its skill and daring and by the level of rapport established by three outstanding musicians.

Jo Lawry


(Whirlwind Recordings WR4798)

Jo Lawry – vocals, Linda May Han Oh – double bass, Allison Miller – drums

Jo Lawry is an Australian vocalist and songwriter based in New York City since 2003.

Originally from Adelaide she moved to the US with the idea of making a career as a jazz singer and, as her album notes explain, was lucky enough to study and perform with many of her jazz heroes.

What she describes as “the twists and turns of fate, plus some pretty wonderful luck” saw her becoming increasingly involved in the world of rock and pop and performing and recording with such big names as Sting, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel.

She has also released a couple of singer / songwriter albums that she describes as being “jazz adjacent”, namely “Taking Pictures” (2015) and “The Bathtub and the Sea” (2017).

“Acrobats” represents Lawry’s first genuine jazz album since her 2008 début “I Want To Be Happy” and features her singing in an exposed, chordless setting, backed by the truly stellar rhythm partnership of bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Allison Miller.

The new album came about as the result of Lawry setting herself a musical challenge, one originally conceived during the pandemic;
“I thought, what is the hardest thing I could do? And the answer was a trio album, voice, bass and drums, where I’m trying to function like a horn player and we’re providing the whole landscape without the benefit of chords”.

She is quick to praise her partners in the project;
“As soon as I though about doing this with Linda and Allison I suspected something special might happen. From the first downbeat in the studio I knew I had chosen the right partners and we had so much fun. Sure it was scary, but a good scary, like flying. Hence the title ‘Acrobats’. Alli and Linda were there to catch me every step of the way, but also knew exactly when to throw me for a loop. I can’t thank these spectacular women enough for their generosity of spirit, their playfulness, not to mention their total bad-assery. I couldn’t have made this record with anybody else. This is the most playful and adventurous that I have been in the studio, which is down to the alchemy of this particular combination of people. You need to have people that you know are going to catch you.”.

“Acrobats” focusses on Lawry the singer, rather than Lawry the songwriter. All of the material is sourced from outside the trio and includes their adventurous interpretations of a number of jazz standards. Lawry clearly has a particular empathy with the work of Frank Loesser and three / four of his songs are included here.

Indeed the album opens with the little known Loesser tune “Travelling Light”, which features intelligent, sharply observed lyrics, the words well served by Lawry’s flexible, well enunciated vocals. Oh and Miller are right on the money, with the latter’s drums coming to the fore in the spot where a horn or piano solo might normally be expected. Yet one doesn’t miss these instruments; along with the singer, Oh and Miller have the necessary skill and inventiveness to make this unusual voice / bass/ drums configuration work.

Double bass and hand drums introduce the title track, a song written by Lawry’s fellow Australian Gian Slater. The song sounds as if it could have been written specifically for this trio (“Acrobats spend their time trying to stay on the wire”) with Oh and Miller providing the musical safety net for Lawry’s daring vocal gymnastics, these including a dazzling scat episode that does indeed see her deploying her voice in the manner of a horn soloist.

Introduced by a combination of bass and cymbals the standard “Taking A Chance On Love” (V. Duke, J. La Touche, T. Fetter) finds Lawry sounding suitably wistful, but also steering the music into some pretty adventurous areas harmonically and rhythmically, and doing all of this without ever compromising the essential spirit of the song. The instrumental honours go to Oh with a dexterous double bass solo.

Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top” sees the group pared down even further and is a duet between Lawry and Miller, the singer’s voice dancing lithely above Miller’s similarly nimble brush work. There’s a real vivacity about the performance and this duo interpretation of a typically witty Porter song succeeds brilliantly. Miller is a bandleader in her own right with eight album releases to her credit. She has also collaborated with numerous other musicians and bands across a range of musical genres, among them Bristol based bassist and composer Greg Cordez.

Oh returns for a quirky rendition of the standard “’Deed I Do” (F. Rose, W. Hirsch),  a performance that epitomises the spirit of the album through its combination of skill, daring and unadulterated fun. Miller deploys an array of percussive devices in an inventive and idiosyncratic drumming performance that is the perfect foil for Lawry’s adventurous scat vocals.

“You’re The Voice” (A. Qunta, K. Reid, M. Ryder, C.  Thompson) was a 1986 hit for Lawry’s fellow Australian John Farnham. Lawry describes the song as being “woven deeply into our DNA as Australians”. Oh and Miller establish a powerful rock style groove above which Lawry delivers the familiar lyrics, the song was a pop hit in the UK too. It’s interesting to hear the song performed in this pared down instrumental format and to see where the members of the trio take it. The passage where Lawry’s wordless voice soars over Miller’s drum barrage is a particularly striking moment. It’s not a jazz song and this is not an orthodox jazz performance, but nevertheless it’s a rendition that still works in this context. Although its conclusion may ruffle the feathers of a few jazz purists it’s a piece that epitomises the devil-may-care attitude of the album as a whole.

The second duo item on the record teams Lawry with Oh’s bass on “Takes Two To Tango” (A. Hoffman, R. Manning). It’s a playful rendition with Oh’s bass brilliantly shadowing Lawry’s sensuous vocals. There’s also a concise double bass solo from a musician who is a bandleader in her own right as well as one of the most in demand musicians on the global jazz scene. Oh’s bass playing has been heard in bands led by such jazz heavyweights as guitarist Pat Metheny, trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Kenny Barron and saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Lawry’s horn inspired wordless scat vocals are heard to best advantage on the trio’s version of pianist /composer Lennie Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street”, again skipping airily above Miller’s vivacious brush work and Oh’s anchoring bass lines. The bassist then steps forward to deliver a fluent solo, brilliantly complemented by Miller’s drum accompaniment.

The album is bookended by another item from the Frank Loesser repertoire, a segue of the songs “My Time of Day” and “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”. Voice and bass duet on the former, an evocative rendition of the early, pre-dawn hours of a New York morning. Miller is added as the music gathers momentum and segues into a loosely structured delivery of the second song that is little short of remarkable, with Lawry producing some astonishing ‘voice as instrument’  sounds.

“‘I’ve Never Been In Love Before’ is a well known jazz standard” explains Lawry, “but what I have always absolutely adored is the vignette ‘My Time of Day’ that precedes it in ‘Guys And Dolls’. It’s a song that has been in my head for thirty years and is one of the most extraordinary melodies I’ve ever heard”.

And there’s yet more Loesser as the trio’s version of “If I Were A Bell” is presented as a bonus track. Captured during a soundcheck and ushered in by Oh’s bass the performance epitomises the trio’s adventurous approach, whilst also swinging ferociously. There’s some more stunning scat vocalising from the leader, ably assisted, as ever, by bass and drums.

Lawry has risen to the challenge of the chordless vocal trio album with aplomb and the recording has already accrued a compelling amount of critical praise. Her voice isn’t the widest ranging that I’ve heard, but it is pure in tone, highly flexible, well enunciated and very much suited to the chosen material. Lawry is also prepared to take musical risks and her spirit of adventure is shared by her two instrumental colleagues, two supremely gifted technicians who both shine throughout this recording. The Whirlwind engineering team of Alejandro Vengeur and the estimable Tyler McDiarmid ensure that all three participants are heard at their best and generally do a terrific job, as always.

“Acrobats” impresses with its skill and daring and by the level of rapport established by these three outstanding musicians. One would also imagine that the prospect of seeing this ‘music without a safety net’ being performed live would also be a highly exciting prospect.



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