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Julia Biel

Julia Biel

by Ian Mann

September 26, 2006


The album "Not Alone" is highly recommended. It is a charming record that is likely to appeal to listeners of many genres, not just the regular jazz audience.

Jazz on The Level, Level 3, St Davids Hall, Cardiff

16th September 2006

Singer Julia Biel released her debut album “Not Alone” in 2005 and drew rave reviews from the music press who immediately recognised an important new talent even if they weren’t sure of quite how to categorise her. For what is nominally a jazz record “Not Alone” has sold very well and Biel was nominated as a “Rising Star” in this years BBC Jazz Awards although she eventually lost out on the title to the pianist Andrew McCormack.

Biel is a member of the London based F-ire Collective, an aggregation of musicians who have produced some of the most vital music of recent years. Their works include highly acclaimed albums by bands such as Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear and Oriole and by individuals including Ingrid Laubrock, Justin Quinn and Jonathan Bratoeff.

“Not Alone” is a notable addition to this worthy canon and consists of music co-written by Biel and guitarist Jonny Phillips, leader of the band Oriole. The songs feature Biel’s simple but poetic lyrics whilst the compositions draw on many sources including jazz, folk and latin influences. Comparisons have been drawn with many artists from Billie Holiday to Bjork and all points in between. Certainly Holiday appears to have influenced Biel’s phrasing and there is an other worldly quality to the music and singing that is sometimes reminiscent of Bjork, but the truth is that Biel and Phillips have created a highly original soundscape that is all their own.

For tonight’s show in Cardiff Biel is joined by an excellent band drawn from the ranks of the F-ire Collective. Alongside Phillips on guitar are Ben Davis (cello), Idris Rahman (clarinet), Jasper Hoiby (bass) and on drums the remarkable Sebastian Rochford who has been at the heart of the F-ire success story. This is the core of the group that appears on the album with Hoiby taking over the bass duties from Tom Herbert.

The first set commences with “History” which appears as a “secret track” on the album and throws in yet more influences in the form of soul/r’n'b and even a hint of hip-hop. Rahman adds backing vocals and this is a rousing start to the evening’s music.

“Rhythm Of The Treetops” follows, also drawn from the album “Not Alone”. If anything Biel allows Phillips more solo space than he permits himself in his own band Oriole. There he is mainly concerned with ensemble playing, textures and colours but here he treats us to a sparkling acoustic guitar solo of great dexterity and immaculate construction as the melodic ideas unfold. Rahman follows with a dancing clarinet solo.

However all is not well. Biel and Phillips are not happy with the sound and there are requests and gesticulations to the mixing desk. The sound is not that bad but it is a little muddy and as a result the lyrics are rendered somewhat indistinct and it is not easy to make emotional sense of the songs.

“By The Light Of You” is next with Biel taking up the small South American stringed instrument the cavaqinho and Rahman switching to flute.

Biel then introduces a new song “Nothing’s Wrong” a song about a relationship break-up. This is well up to the standard of the album material and presumably will appear on her next release. However the sound problems have still not been satisfactorily resolved and the overall impact of the song is thus reduced.

Biel plays electric guitar on another new number “Strange Breed”. Here the excellent Ben Davis whose melancholy cello does so much to give Biel’s music it’s distinctive sound is given some solo space and uses it to rich effect.

“Uncomfortable Somehow” marks a return to songs sourced from the album. Instrumentally this is probably the highlight so far commencing with a cello/clarinet dialogue between Davis and Rahman with Hoiby’s rich, dark bass and Phillips guitar subsequently joining the mix. The driving Latin rhythms of the ever resourceful Rochford coax a probing cello solo from Davis and an inventive clarinet solo from Rahman that adds a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour to the mix.

The beautiful lilting melody of “Souvenir” calms things down again. This is a lovely song with its bittersweet lyrics and gorgeous tune.

“Shhh?” opens the album but perversely here closes the first set. Things come full circle with Rahman once again contributing backing vocals. Another beautiful song and one with a definite Bjork influence.

A good first half then but somewhat marred by the sound problems. The band are definitely not happy. The reaction of the crowd has been rather muted. It has to be said that the venue is rather soulless and akin to a hotel foyer. There has been an attempt to create an atmosphere of intimacy by the use of cabaret seating but the tables are too far from the stage and sight lines are interrupted by a series of pillars. The venue is comfortable enough but there is definitely a lack of atmosphere, which undermines this intelligent, sensitive music.

Rochford and Rahman sit out “Choro”, a new song which opens the second set. This features Biel’s smoky vocals and atmospheric solos from Davis and Hoiby.

Two more new songs follow “Brave New World” and the soaring melody of “Twisting” Unfortunately the sound quality has not improved despite more requests from the stage. At one point Biel apologises to the audience for turning her back on them and singing while facing the musicians “in order to communicate with my band”. I think she was making a point but it was all to no avail. The songs themselves however maintain the high quality standards we have come to expect.

“Where Is She Now?” sees a return to album based material. Another achingly beautiful song this calls forth more excellent solos from Phillips and from Rahman on clarinet.

The dancing Latin rhythms of “Paradise” increase the tempo and features Rahman’s effervescent flute. Rochford’s drumming is as subtle and inventive as it is propulsive.

A reprise of “History” gives Biel the chance to introduce the band in turn and they each take a solo. In order this was Davis, Rochford (and his new Moroccan tambourine),Hoiby, Phillips and Rahman.

Unfortunately there is no encore. I sensed that the band was not really in the mood due to the sound problems and the audience were still subdued. However, judging by the number of people who spoke to the band and purchased CD’s afterwards it would seem that the audience enjoyed it but felt inhibited by the venue.

Perhaps Cardiff’s Jazz Café where I saw Rochford’s band Polar Bear play a storming set last year would have provided a more suitable and intimate setting.

Speaking to Biel and Phillips afterwards they cited the intimate Pizza Express Club in Dean St. London as a favourite venue and they also enjoyed the festival atmosphere at Cheltenham.

The indefatigable Rochford should have three albums out by the end of the year with the bands Fulborn Teversham, Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear. Does this man ever stop? “I hope not” he grins shyly. The next day he appeared in a short but interesting feature in the Observer Music Monthly. Having gone to the expense of a professional photo shoot (cool picture) they proceeded to spell his name wrong throughout! (Roachford).

There was some fine music played tonight but this was not Julia Biel at her best. The combination of sound problems and an unsympathetic space undermined her performance. She has a fine singing voice and a good variation of tone from the smoky and soulful to the offbeat and ethereal. She and Phillips are a fine song writing team with intelligent, heart felt lyrics and consistently inventive compositions and arrangements. Arguably she needs to work on her stagecraft in order that she can project herself above these sorts of problems if they occur again.

Despite the reservations about tonight’s show the album “Not Alone” is highly recommended. It is a charming record and is likely to appeal to listeners of many genres, not just the regular jazz audience. Hopefully it will continue to sell well.

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