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Sarah Gillespie

Sarah Gillespie Quartet feat. Gilad Atzmon at Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 27/05/12


by Ian Mann

May 29, 2012


The best Sarah Gillespie show I've yet seen, with the emphasis more firmly upon the singer.This was her most convincing and assured performance to date.

Sarah Gillespie Quartet featuring Gilad Atzmon, Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 27/05/2012.

Tonight’s performance represented a very welcome return for singer/songwriter/guitarist Sarah Gillespie who last visited the club in January 2011 attracting one of the largest crowds seen at BMJ for some time. This evening’s event was less crammed but the attendance was still gratifyingly healthy with Gillespie and the quartet earning a warm reception for their distinctive music. This was the third time I’ve seen Gillespie appear live and for me this was her most convincing and assured performance to date.

Gillespie seemed to emerge from nowhere in 2008 with her acclaimed début album “Stalking Juliet”, a stunning release that also featured the playing, arranging and production skills of multi instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon, a significant recording artist in his own right. This was followed by 2011’s “In The Current Climate”, another strong collection which cemented Gillespie’s reputation as a skilled and highly literate songwriter. Her current tour comes in the wake of the release of “The War On Trevor”, an EP containing a mini suite of four songs which has recently been reviewed elsewhere on this site.

It’s something of a mystery to me that Gillespie is still only a “cult” artist. Her songs are excellent, she possesses a distinctive voice, striking good looks and fronts a characterful band of superb musicians but to date mainstream success seems have eluded her. Perhaps it’s because her songs are too wordy, too musically exotic and too politically uncompromising. Her tunes have great choruses but they’re a far cry from Coldplay’s anodyne stadium anthems, I guess the great British public just doesn’t like to be challenged too much. Their loss is my gain, one of the joys of being a fan of jazz or any other so called “minority” music is getting the opportunity to witness artists of this calibre performing in intimate situations such as a jazz or folk club. Whilst I wish Sarah every success there’s still a part of me that’s grateful that she’s still playing in venues like this. 

There’s always been some debate about whether Gillespie’s work represents just another creative outlet for Atzmon. Certainly his influence on the first two albums has been enormous and on the previous occasions I’ve seen Gillespie live (at Lichfield RAJB in 2010 and Abergavenny in 2011) the pair have also shared announcing duties, often bantering together like an old married couple (they’re not). This time it was different, Atzmon has taken a deliberate step back (a process that began on the recording of “In The Current Climate”), allowing Gillespie more space and giving her a greater opportunity to assert herself. In previous shows the subtleties of her lyrics, inspired by the Beat poets, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell but filtered through the perspective of multi cultural London (“the mean streets of Marylebone”), have often been buried in the mix. This time it was different with both voice and guitar more prominent in the mix, you could hear practically every word and could also gain a greater appreciation of Gillespie’s considerable guitar skills- previously there’s been a tendency to regard her acoustic as a purely textural device. Not that Atzmon didn’t have his moments, his skilful arrangements, blazing solos and substantial stage presence are still a huge part of the quartet’s sound and appeal but he’s now more ready to acknowledge Gillespie as the leader, a role she’s stepped into with considerable aplomb, handling the bulk of the announcements and exhibiting a heightened sense of stage craft. Maybe that mainstream success will come knocking after all.

Of course the performance isn’t just about Gillespie and Atzmon. The quartet is a regular working unit and the contributions of bassist Ben Bastin and drummer Enzo Zirilli are significant factors in the success of the music. Their economic but propulsive playing gives the music a considerable rhythmic drive and both are capable of “stepping up to the plate” when required for the occasional bass or drum feature. This is a tight knit unit with a strong “gang” mentality and both rhythm players, and particularly Bastin, also have something of the showman’s mentality. Bastin also seems to have an auxiliary role as a secondary musical director with Gillespie often deferring to him for advice.

The evening didn’t get off to a promising start. Atzmon and Zirilli had played in Lugano, Switzerland the previous night with Atzmon’s own Orient House Ensemble. Atzmon was complaining of back problems after being cooped up in planes and cars all day long, ironically he played tonight’s gig largely seated, and Zirilli was gulping down paracetamol or something similar. The jazz life is certainly never easy and Atzmon’s black “Weary Traveller” T shirt seemed well chosen. Yet once they were up on stage one would never have known, these guys are professionals and they delivered - in spades.

And so to the songs, beginning with “In The Current Climate”, with Gillespie’s voice immediately noticeably well forward in the mix (well done to BMJ’s resident sound engineer Jim for a good night’s work). Atzmon was on clarinet, his solo containing the now familiar quote from “Flight Of The Bumble Bee” that also appears on the record. Throughout the course of the evening he peppered his solo with quotes from other sources, evoking reactions ranging from wry smiles to guffaws from the audience, each recognition acknowledged by Atzmon with an arch raising of the eyebrows or else a knowing smirk. 

From her first album Gillespie described “Big Mistake” with its risqué but bitter lyrics as being about her ex husband. Musically it borrows heavily from the Middle East through Atzmon’s clarinet and Bastin’s bowed bass.

Gillespie’s music is heavily informed by the politics of both the Middle East and the UK. “How The Mighty Fall” with its irresistible chorus is now dedicated to David Cameron rather than Tony Blair- and to film director James Cameron too, “somebody else who knows something about sinking ships”. Whatever. The song itself has a killer hook and was once released as a single. The melody is driven by Atzmon’s accordion and given considerable clout by Bastin’s appropriately mighty bass groove, complete with ostentatious flamenco style strumming.

The music from “Stalking Juliet” still forms a substantial part of Gillespie’s live set, in general the songs from “In The Current Climate” are more reflective and acoustic. So still from that first record came “Million Moons”, another accordion driven piece with graphic lyrics, bowed bass and an uplifting chorus with Bastin joining in on backing vocals.

Gillespie’s sets have always included a couple of standards, but delivered in a unique fashion. First to get the Gillespie/Atzmon makeover was “The original Credit Crunch anthem” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”, written by Jimmy Cox and made famous by Bessie Smith, “The Empress of the Blues”. The song may be nearly a century old but its lyrics are as relevant as ever and Gillespie’s unique vocal delivery and Atzmon’s audacious clarinet solo are not only great fun but also turn it into a song for our time.

Even so this almost represented a bit of light relief before Current Climate’s “How The West Was Won”, a song about “extraordinary rendition” sung from the point of view of a prisoner icarcerated and tortured in Guantanamo Bay. The piece was introduced by a highly atmospheric solo drum intro from Zirilli, a combination of delicate hand drumming and eerie cymbal scrapes. Atzmon was outstanding on soprano sax, producing ugly siren noises before a stunning solo sax coda. And did anybody else spot Gillespie’s knowingly blatant Bob Dylan reference in the lyrics?

Following on from this the first half concluded with a performance of the entire “War On Trevor Suite” with Atzmon switching between instruments as the music demanded. Opening section “The Miranda Warning” acted as a scene setter, the warped waltz of “Signal Failure” would work well as a twisted love song in its own right. Thought provoking AND fun the hard driving “The Shami Chakarabati Blues” mixed humour and sharp political comment in equal measure (I think they used to call it satire) and won a spontaneous round of applause before the suite had finished. The anthemic “The Banks Of The Arghandab” was delivered with passion and conviction. If anything “Trevor” live was even better than the EP with the group adding a number of instrumental flourishes to the recorded version.

The inclusion of “Trevor” meant that it had been a marathon first set and the second half was inevitably shorter. The set began with the duo of Gillespie on guitar and vocal and Atzmon on clarinet for Climate’s brief but haunting “I Forget To Get Off Trains”.

Bastin was added for the next piece (I think they must have been watching the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense”). “Sad Lucia” is one of Gillespie’s wordier songs with the singer slipping into the character of a wounded lover for another song from her second album.

Zirilli joined for “Cinematic Nectar” adding broken beat grooves to Atzmon’s droning accordion and Gillespie’s Waitsian lyrics. Hip hop meets Kurt Weill. 

Next up perhaps the most familiar jazz standard of them all, “All Of Me”- but as you’ve probably never heard it before. The juxtaposition of Gillespie’s exaggeratedly vulnerable vocal and Atzmon’s wailing klezmer style clarinet was highly original and the piece also included an ebullient Bastin bass solo and a stunning scat vocal duet between Atzmon and Gillespie. Pure showmanship and great fun, breathing fresh life into this most hackneyed of material. The audience loved it.

We were into the home stretch by now with Gillespie turning back to her début for the smouldering blues of “Malicious Simone” as Atzmon on soprano and Bastin on bass encouraged the audience to clap along. The title track of “Stalking Juliet” took things storming out with blazing soprano sax, tongue twisting lyrics and a thumping groove.

Promoter Mike Skilton tempted the quartet back to the stage for a brief encore of “Sleep Talking” from “Stalking Juliet”. Atzmon’s solo clarinet intro led into a predominately acoustic number featuring Zirilli’s delicately brushed accompaniment.

Despite having to travel back to London this most approachable of bands still had time to chat and told me some interesting facts that I hope they don’t mind me sharing with you. Sarah has already written most of the songs for a new album due to be released in 2013. At the moment they’re just for voice and guitar and have yet to be presented to Gilad “for him to work his magic on them”. Some of them are actually supposed to be “quite jolly”. It’s a way off yet but I’m already looking forward to hearing it. 

Meanwhile Ben is hoping to do more work with the string quartet that appeared on his 2011 solo album “The Missing Piece” (once again reviewed elsewhere on this site). 

I asked Gilad about his accordion playing since it rarely features in his own bands. “I learned the accordion for Sarah’s music” he explained, “I thought her songs suited the accordion”. Watching him it’s astonishing to think he’s only been playing the instrument for such a short time. “I’m not a good accordion player” he said “but I’ve a good ear and I’m functional”. For Gilad I guess this represents a rare display of modesty. But not a good accordion player? He could’ve fooled me.

So, this was the best Sarah Gillespie show I’ve yet seen, with the emphasis more firmly upon the singer, something I’d fully endorse. In the main these are her songs and words and it’s only right that she should be the main focus. It’s a role she’s increasingly growing into, singing better than ever,exerting a greater instrumental influence and exuding an enhanced on stage confidence. My wife, a big Winehouse fan spontaneously compared her to the blessed Amy, a comparison I made on the release of “Stalking Juliet” and musically it’s not that far fetched. Also one shouldn’t forget the contribution of an excellent band, particularly Atzmon who always impresses whatever situation he finds himself playing in.

So almost the perfect evening and nearly the five star review Mike Skilton has been craving for. Ah, Mike, if only you’d let me win the raffle… 

Tonight’s concert was supported by the Arts Council of Wales’ “Night Out/Noson Allan” scheme.   

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