by Ian Mann
June 24, 2013
"Glory Days" reveals Gillespie's song writing to be as sharp and astute as ever and her poetic muse undimmed.
(Pastiche Records PR13004)
I remember being blown away by Sarah Gillespie’s first album “Stalking Juliet” on its release in 2008. The record introduced Gillespie’s powerful and literate songwriting presence on a set featuring the colourful and exotic arrangements of multi instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon. It was a stunning début that rightly attracted a high degree of critical acclaim.
Atzmon also played on and produced that first album and at the time there was something of a feeling that Gillespie was merely an Atzmon clone. However the follow up “In The Current Climate” (2011) saw Atzmon taking something of a step back as Gillespie began to assert herself with her own acoustic guitar playing a more prominent part in the arrangements. Although less obviously “produced” than the début “Current Climate” proved to be a worthy successor with Gillespie delivering another batch of highly poetic songs that have attracted comparisons with Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Besides these literate songwriters the works of the Beat Poets are another acknowledged influence on Gillespie’s writing.
Gillespie’s songs have always embraced both the personal and the political with the conceptual EP “The War On Trevor” (2012) presenting a sharply observed and often humorous look at the politics of state surveillance in the modern era. “Trevor” was arguably something of a stop gap but 2013 sees the release of the eagerly awaited third full length album “Glory Days”. Although Atzmon is still in the producer’s chair and contributes reeds, accordion, keyboards and electric guitar the process that began on “Current Climate” continues with Gillespie’s own guitar becoming even more of a central presence. Gillespie’s long serving rhythm team of bassist Ben Bastin and drummer Enzo Zirilli remain on board and there are two superb cameos from pianist Kit Downes who played a number of gigs with Gillespie in summer 2012 including a brilliant performance at Brecon Jazz Festival. Marcus Bates adds a little French horn to the mix.
The emergence of Gillespie the musician is perhaps best exemplified by “Postcards To Outer Space”, the opening track on the new album and a performance for voice and acoustic guitar only.Gillespie’s distinctive voice is as strong as ever but her Joni Mitchell style guitar picking is also excellent. The piece is a love song of sorts, full of typically arresting, dramatic and poetic imagery. Like Dylan Gillespie’s lyrics lend themselves to different interpretations but they’re never less than interesting and are unfailingly filled with exotic, poetic imagery, a mix of the tough and the tender, streetwise yet literate.
“Glory Days” (no relation to the Bruce Springsteen song) is Gillespie’s dedication to her late mother Susan Ann Broyden. The lyrics are enigmatic, full of mysterious imagery that suggest that Sarah’s mum was a “bit of a character”, a wild child who passed on her literary leanings to her daughter. With its driving rhythms and arresting chorus - “We can’t erase our Glory Days” - this is a fine slice of intelligent pop music. This time the arrangement is wide screen featuring accordion and French horn and with a delightful cameo from Downs, his piano taking flight on the climax of the song.
“Sugar Sugar” (mercifully no relation to the Archies) is another example of Gillespie’s ability to combine evocative lyrics with pop melody and boasts another fine band arrangement with Gillespie’s guitar prominent in the mix.
“Oh Mary” is a second song for Gillespie’s voice and guitar only, the lyrics have something of the economy of a haiku and are all the more effective for their apparent simplicity. Meanwhile the furiously strummed solo guitar passage between verses four and five leaves the listener in no doubt as to Gillespie’s instrumental abilities.
The song “Signal Failure” initially appeared on the “War On Trevor” EP. Although the four songs on “Trevor” are interlinked it was immediately clear that this piece was strong enough to stand on its own. Indeed Gillespie chose to perform it solo on a recent transmission of BBC Radio 4’s “Loose Ends” programme. Gillespie describes it as being about “romantic jealousy in the age of the smart phone”. The tune is a twisted waltz with deliciously barbed lyrics that combine humour and savagery. Appearing here in a slightly different arrangement to its previous recorded incarnation it’s one of Gillespie’s catchiest tunes.
“The Bees And The Sea” is classic Gillespie, full of exotic, sensual imagery and a colourful arrangement featuring Atzmon on both accordion and reeds and with alternately sensitive/driving rhythm work from Bastin and Zirilli.
Gillespie’s writing has always had a political dimension and she sings “The Soldier Song” from the point of view of a potential combatant serving abroad. The song was inspired by Gillespie’s encounter with an unemployed young man who felt that joining the forces was his only way of gaining meaningful paid employment. Ironically this meeting was at a Peace Festival. The song itself has the immediate, visceral impact of the best folk music with Gillespie’s powerful vocal leaving the listener in no doubt as to where her sympathies lie. There’s a desperate humour in the memorable lines “I wish I was a soldier, a bag upon my back, far away, dying to get back”. Downs’ piano enhances the arrangement.
After the heavy stuff Gillespie injects an element of humour on the rollicking “Babies And All That Shit”. Again there are some great one liners including the frequently quoted “it’s hard loving a man who thinks monogamy is a piece of wood” and “you need some hooker in the background and I don’t mean John Lee”. Musically it’s a romp, terrific fun.
Gillespie has always had a fondness for vintage jazz and blues and a terrific version of Jimmy Cox’s 1923 classic “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” has long been an integral part of her live performances, often described as “the original recession song”.
Now it looks as if that might be succeeded by “St. James Infirmary Blues”, a song so old it’s described as “Traditional”. I love this version with Gillespie’s languidly drawling vocal alongside Bastin’s bowed bass, Zirilli’s colourful percussion and Atzmon’s klezmer meets New Orleans style clarinet.
“Glory Days” reveals Gillespie’s song writing to be as sharp and astute as ever and her poetic muse undimmed. It also charts her rise to prominence as an instrumentalist, there’s more of a “singer songwriter” feel to this album than the two previous releases. She’s a not a jazz performer per se despite her frequent appearances at jazz clubs and festivals and notwithstanding the title of this site I think her music is all the better for that. It’s still a surprise to me that a songwriter and vocalist with this amount of talent isn’t better known, maybe it’s actually time for Gillespie to distance herself from the “jazz ghetto”, her music may not be exactly mainstream but it’s still capable of considerable cross genre appeal.
Gillespie is also a hugely accomplished live performer. I’ve seen her play several times in quartets with Atzmon and Downs and more recently in a trio setting with Bastin and Zirilli. I’ve watched her grow in confidence over the years as Atzmon has deliberately taken a step back. In the pared down trio format her guitar playing is given greater prominence and it’s a tribute to the quality of her songs that they convince in any setting. The live shows are peppered with muso humour and political comment but it’s the power of Gillespie’s voice and of her songs that make her concert and club appearances so memorable.
Sarah is currently on tour with dates booked right ahead into 2014. Schedule below;
606 Club Anniversary Party
Goole - Yorkshire
Swindon Arts Centre
POETRY & MUSIC http: http://www.dulwichbooks.co.uk
The Bikeshed Theatre
North Devon Jazz Club
St Ives Jazz Club
*ALBUM LAUNCH* Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho
*ALBUM LAUNCH* Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho
Swanage Jazz Festival
Stoke by Nayland
Fleece Jazz Club
Kings Lynn Town Hall
Benefit Concert for Tapping House Cancer Hospice
Abergavenny Jazz Festival
The Square and Compass
Horsebridge Arts Centre
Taos, New Mexico USA
Taos Mesa Brewing
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
The Cowgirl Cafe
The Fleece Fundraiser Concert
Fundraiser concert line up TBC
Queen Elizabeth Hall with Gilad Atzmon
Special guest with Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble
LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
St David’s Hall
Wodan Halle, Freiburg
Lahr Theatre - Germany
More at http://www.sarahgillespie.com
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