by Ian Mann
October 08, 2018
Situated in the hinterland somewhere between jazz and the territory of the singer songwriter this is a highly personal album that finds Colman carving out a niche that is very much her own.
“What We’re Made Of”
(Stony Lane Records SLR1968)
Although born in Bristol vocalist, pianist, songwriter and musical educator Sara Colman is most closely identified with the Birmingham music scene. She studied classical music at the city’s Conservatoire before turning towards jazz, blues and popular music, settling in the region and becoming a popular figure with jazz audiences in the Midlands and beyond.
Although a popular performer Colman has hitherto been under recorded since making her début in 1998 with the album “Spellbound”, following this with “Ready” in 2009, more than a full decade later. Both these albums focussed on jazz standards plus jazzy arrangements of pop and rock tunes by writers such as Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Carole King.
Fascinated by the process of songwriting Colman has since studied for an MA in the subject and as a result “What We’re Made Of” places a far greater emphasis on original material. The new album has been a long time in the planning and features an impressive supporting cast of musicians drawn from the Birmingham, Bristol and London jazz scenes.
Central to the project are guitarist Steve Banks,who is also Colman’s partner, and her long serving bassist and musical director Ben Markland. Key roles are also played by pianist Rebecca Nash, who handles the majority of the keyboard parts, and percussionist Adrian Adewale. Percy Pursglove adds welcome splashes of colour on trumpet and flugelhorn while Jonathan Silk provides sumptuous string arrangements as well as appearing behind the drum kit. The Carducci Strong Quartet appear on three cuts in a direct reflection of Colman’s classical background and there are also cameo appearances from bassist Jules Jackson and backing vocalists Emilia Martensson and Anthony Marsden, plus engineer Nick Dover and Stony Lane label owner Sam Slater.
I’ve been fortunate to witness Colman perform live on a number of occasions at festivals in Birmingham and Much Wenlock and have always found her to be a very warm and personable stage presence and a highly accomplished vocalist with great technical skills – in other words, a class act. These sets have typically mixed jazz standards with pop and rock covers and an increasing amount of original material, with bassist Markland a constant presence at all these shows.
The album opens with “It Begins”, written by Colman in conjunction with Silk, who provides the string arrangement played by the Carducci Quartet. The song is paced by Nash’s piano and also features the burnished tones of Pursglove’s flugel. Colman’s warm vocal sings the praises of the dawning of a new day, her simple but poetic lyrics a hymn to the beauty of nature. Silk’s string arrangements have been favourably compared to those of Robert Kirby on the Nick Drake albums “Five Leaves Left” and “Bryter Later” and there’s certainly a Drake like quality about this lovely opener.
The title track, with music and lyrics by Colman, finds Nash switching to electric piano (Rhodes) for an opening duet with the singer. Acoustic guitar, double bass and percussion are added to the equation, plus the choral backing vocals of Martensson, Marsden and Dover. The combination of instruments and voices lends a breezy Brazilian feel to the piece with instrumental solos coming from Nash on gently trilling jazzy Rhodes and Pursglove on fluent, warm toned trumpet. Colman’s emotive lead vocal sings of the importance of love to the human condition - “we are something more than every breath we take”.
Co-written by Colman and Banks and with a string arrangement by Silk “Heartsafe” has something of a Joni Mitchell feel about it. Paced by Banks’ baritone guitar Colman’s conversational vocal intones a lyric that I assume is a dedication to her young daughter. The singer’s voice is multi-tracked to create a choral effect. Adewale provides subtle percussive accompaniment, this complemented by Silk’s economic string arrangement for the Carduccis.
“Strange Meeting” is a setting of a Bill Frisell tune, originally written as an instrumental but here with words co-written by Colman and Hannah Hind. It’s an atmospheric piece, introduced by the sound of Pursglove’s breathy trumpet, accompanied by the rustle of Adewale’s percussion and Banks’ Frisell-like guitar. A Norma Winstone style lyric, written in the third person, intones the tale of a man who regrets losing the love of a woman who shone too brightly for him, a rueful tale of lost opportunities. Central to the lyric is the phrase “Seren Haf” - ‘summer star’ in Welsh. A ‘village chorus’ featuring the voices of Martensson, Marsden, Slater and members of the band combine to sing Frisell’s melody at one point, while the stand out instrumental contribution comes from Pursglove with his richly evocative trumpet work.
Colman includes a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” as a homage to the Canadian born singer-songwriter’s seventy fifth birthday. Colman names this as one of her all time favourite songs and comments;
“I love the innocence and the simplicity of the love, the want for all good things, the profound awareness of how people work. It was a pleasure to cover this song”.
The jazzy arrangement, by Colman and Banks, features the core quintet of Colman, Banks, Nash, Markland and Adewale with Nash soloing on Rhodes and with Markland’s double bass playing a significant role.
“Open”, co-written by Colman and Banks and with a string arrangement by Silk, is an essentially acoustic performance, paced by Banks’ acoustic guitar and with the Carduccis plus backing vocalists Martensson and Marsden adding extra gloss to the arrangement. Again there’s something of a Mitchell-esque feel to the performance, with Coleman’s lyrics a plea for openness and transparency.
Banks switches to electric guitar, playing a prominent part in the arrangement, as guest Jules Jackson takes over the bass chair for the brooding “Trouble Out There” with its storm imagery and warnings of impending global environmental apocalypse. Silk occupies the kit as well as providing the string arrangement for the Carduccis.
Colman’s “Echoes” is a particularly personal song, a sad, but heartfelt and moving, dedication to a dead friend. The lyrics also make oblique reference to the demolition of the old Birmingham Conservatoire following the institution’s move to shiny new premises on the East side of the city, with its own jazz club, no less! A pared down arrangement features Colman’s emotive vocal, sympathetically accompanied by Nash’s acoustic piano and with Banks’ electric guitar and Markland’s electric bass providing atmospheric additional colour and texture.
Colman says of the song;
“As the building was being demolished my friend William died. We made a lot of music together in that building and each time another piece of it came away I imagined the echoes that had been absorbed into the walls flying out with the dust”.
The beguiling “Be Careful”, co-written by Colman, Banks and engineer Nick Dover embraces elements of jazz, folk and pop and incorporates something of a feature for drummer Silk in an arrangement that also includes Rhodes, acoustic guitar and double bass.
Colman and Nash combined to write “Dreamer”, with the singer providing the lyrics and the pianist the music. The performance is a sensitive duet for voice and acoustic piano with Nash’s flowing keyboard lyricism complementing Colman’s pure, elegant vocals and concise but poetic lyrics. I’m used to seeing Nash in the edgier environment of saxophonist Dee Byrne’s Entropi quintet and this piece serves as a welcome reminder of her versatility and skill as an accompanist.
The album concludes with another vocal and piano performance, a Colman arrangement of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”, a song that most readers will surely be familiar with. Colman alters the gender of the lyrics and accompanies herself at the piano, whilst receiving strategic vocal assistance from backing singers Martensson and Marsden.
“What We’re Made Of” has been a long time in the making. It’s an album that has clearly been a labour of love for Coleman, a fact that is reflected by the care that has been taken with the arrangements and the overall high quality of the production.
Those song writing studies have clearly paid off as evidenced by the quality of the original songs with their succinct, thoughtful and poetic lyrics, the words enhanced by Colman’s assured and relaxed vocal performances. The cast of accompanying instrumentalists and singers add greatly to the success of the record with everybody contributing immaculate performances.
Situated in the hinterland somewhere between jazz and the territory of the singer songwriter “What We’re Made Of” is a very personal album that finds Colman carving out a niche that is very much her own. It’s not an out and out jazz record and it’s a little too close to the popular music mainstream for my own personal tastes, but I can appreciate the care and skill that has gone into the making of this album. I’m certain that Colman’s many fans will derive great enjoyment from it, and I positively welcome the presence of so much original material. In this respect “What We’re Made Of” represents a considerable step forward.
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