by Ian Mann
September 14, 2018
Dowling has an extraordinary voice that combines technical prowess with considerable emotional impact This is.an album that can be recommended to all fans of accomplished vocal jazz.
“Two Sides of Sara”
(Self Released SD1802)
Sara Dowling is a London based vocalist and songwriter who is considered to be something of a ‘rising star’ on the UK jazz scene. Her 2015 début album “From Shadows into Light”, recorded with a quartet featuring pianist Rob Barron, bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Matt Home, attracted a compelling degree of critical acclaim and has ensured that Dowling has become one of the most in demand vocalist on the British jazz scene, with an increasingly busy engagement schedule. Among those to sing her praises are musicians Guy Barker (trumpet) and Nigel Price (guitar) plus journalist Sebastian Scotney of London Jazz News.
Dowling developed an early love of jazz via her late father’s record collection, which included albums by such jazz greats as pianists Errol Garner, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, George Shearing, Bud Powell and Wynton Kelly plus saxophonists Lester Young and Ben Webster.
Classical music was also on the agenda and after taking up the cello at primary school in Cornwall the young Dowling was awarded a scholarship to study the instrument at the prestigious Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. She subsequently moved on to graduate from the Royal Northern College of Music and worked regularly in orchestras, including the Halle, as a classical cellist.
By this time Dowling was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the restrictions of the classical music world, finding little room for self expression in the disciplined environment of the orchestra. She even quit music for a while, becoming a teacher at a comprehensive school in Bolton.
Dowling’s love of jazz was rekindled by a chance visit to the Matt & Phred’s Jazz Club in Manchester when she got up to sing a song during a jam session and never looked back. Here was the form of self expression that she had been seeking and in 2010 she quit her teaching job to become a professional musician.
Drawing inspiration from such iconic singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter and Nancy Wilson the young vocalist began to hone her craft - “learning the nuts and bolts of jazz, building a repertoire, listening and absorbing” as Dowling puts it.
This process culminated in the release of “From Shadows into Light”, which featured two of Dowling’s original songs (one co-written with Rob Barron) alongside a well chosen selection of standards. Dowling’s writing skills have also allowed her to supplement her income by composing material for advertising, television and film.
However Dowling’s second album finds her focussing exclusively on standards material. “I love singing standards” she declares, “this record was intentionally meant to be a good old-fashioned jazz album”.
“Two Sides…” features Dowling performing with two different musical partners, pianist Gabriel Latchin and organist Bill Mudge. In LP terms the two musicians get a side of seven songs each, with the selections featuring Latchin up first.
Dowling has been singing with Latchin since 2015 and it’s clear that the pair have already established an excellent rapport. Their partnership is modelled on that of Ella Fitzgerald and Ellis Larkins, the initial inspiration for the making of this record.
Latchin is one of the best young mainstream pianists in the country and leads his own trio featuring bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Josh Morrison. My review of his début album “Introducing Gabriel Latchin Trio” can be read here
Latchin has also recorded with vibraphonist Nat Steele and has worked as a sideman with saxophonists Ronnie Cuber, Jean Toussaint, Grant Stewart and Alex Garnett and with vocalist Salena Jones. He has also played with large ensembles such as the London Jazz Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. One of his most prestigious engagements came in December 2016 when the American bassist, composer and band-leader Christian McBride selected him as an accompanist at a major one off event at London’s Wigmore Hall, a concert that also featured the voice of opera singer Renee Fleming.
Dowling speaks glowingly about Latchin’s abilities, describing him as ‘world class’. Of the recording process for this album she says;
“Gabriel and I didn’t need walls or windows separating us that day. We recorded right next to each other in the same room and had complete trust in each other’s performances. His musical knowledge and deep understanding of this music never ceases to amaze me!”.
That intimacy is reflected in the singing and playing. Both Dowling and Latchin are unfussy performers who resist the temptation to over-embellish the material, each serves the selected songs faithfully.
Dowling is a vocalist who puts the emphasis on careful phrasing, her singing is well enunciated and she largely avoids the scat vocal clichés. That’s not to say that her singing is inflexible or unadventurous. Instead Dowling sings with great vivacity, really getting inside a song and drawing out the full meaning out of the lyrics, “I deliver the lines in the way an actress would” she explains. Her voice embraces a considerable dynamic range, a quality that enhances the expressiveness of her delivery.
The material was selected with Fitzgerald and Larkins in mind, pieces that they might have chosen to play. “Songs that sit on a tempo that allows the pianist to play at a slow lilting stride” explains Dowling.
Latchin impresses with his intelligence and sensitivity, his playing uncluttered and his occasional solos lyrical, melodic and intelligent -, but at all times with that vital spark that helps to bring the music alive.
The intimate duo format doesn’t really allow for a song by song analysis but I’m sure readers can imagine the sound of the following songs;
1. Isn’t It A Lovely Day (Irving Berlin)
2. It’s Crazy (Richard Rogers / Dorothy Fields)
3. I’m So Glad There Is You (Jimmy Dorsey / Paul Mertz)
4. After You get What You Want (Irving Berlin)
5. Lost In The Stars (Kurt Weill / Sidney D. Mitchell)
6. Will You Still Be Mine (Matt Dennis / Tom Adair)
7. Some Other Time (Leonard Bernstein / Betty Comden, Adolph Green)
Dowling’s voice possesses an agreeable degree of bluesiness and this quality of her singing is brought out even more in her series of duets with organist Bill Mudge. Mudge is a busy presence on the London jazz scene as both an organist and a pianist but my only previous sighting of him had been a 2015 EFG London Festival appearance when he was part of Toy Rokit, an experimental trio that played an engaging lunchtime set at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street. Mudge played keyboards and electronics alongside Mark Rose (electric bass) and Chris Nickolls (drums).
For this session Mudge plays a vintage Hammond organ and the unusual combination of this instrument plus voice works extremely well. In this format Dowling’s vocals are earthier, bluesier and a little more sassy and theatrical. If the session with Latchin is concerned with sophistication and elegance this collaboration with Mudge is more about soulfulness and having a good time, and for much of the time Dowling and Mudge sound as if they’re having a ball. Not that the session is devoid of light and shade, a heartfelt rendition of “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry” is hauntingly effective.
In this pared down duo context all the nuances of the Hammond are brought out by the engineering team of Steve Pringle and Alex Bonney with Mudge producing an extraordinary range of sounds, colours and timbres from the instrument. His consistently colourful and inventive playing when allied to Dowling’s voice is a revelation. Who would have thought that the combination of just voice and Hammond could work so well?
An eclectic collection of material finds Dowling and Mudge teaming up on the following songs;
8. You Turned The Tables On Me (Louis Alter / Sidney D. Mitchell)
9. Mountain Greenery (Richard Rogers / Lorenz Hart)
10. I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry (Jule Styne / Sammy Cahn)
11. Miss Brown To You (Richard A. Whiting / Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin)
12. Great Day (Vincent Youmans / Edward Eliscu, Billy Rose)
13. You Came A Long Way From St. Louis (John Benson Brooks / Bob Russell)
14. Sleepy Time Down South (Clarence Muse / Leon & Otis Rene)
“Two Sides Of Sara” is a very classy album from a highly accomplished vocalist. To be honest it’s a little too mainstream for my personal tastes but there’s no doubt that Dowling has an extraordinary voice that combines technical prowess with considerable emotional impact. She’s a performer whose singing will give great pleasure to a substantial number of listeners.
Unashamedly retro as it may be there’s also an adventurous side to this album, particularly in the collaboration with Bill Mudge. I don’t think I’ve heard a vocal and Hammond duet before and Dowling deserves praise for exploring this unusual combination so successfully. It’s always a treat to hear a vintage Hammond, particularly in such good hands as Mudge’s, so this side of Sara gets the nod from me. Not that there’s anything wrong with the beautiful set featuring Dowling and Latchin, which is equally effective, if a little more conservative.
Overall this is an album that can be recommended to all fans of accomplished vocal jazz.
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