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Sarah Gillespie

Sarah Gillespie Quartet featuring Gilad Atzmon, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 30/01/2011

by Ian Mann

February 01, 2011


The singer/songwriter/guitarist and her highly skilled colleagues got Black Mountain Jazz's 2011 programme off to a terrific start.

Sarah Gillespie Quartet featuring Gilad Atzmon

Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 30/01/2011

Sarah Gillespie and her merry band of troubadours rolled into Abergavenny as part of a massive nationwide tour in support of her new album “In The Current Climate” (recently reviewed elsewhere on this site). The singer/songwriter/guitarist and her highly skilled colleagues got Black Mountain Jazz’s 2011 programme off to a terrific start. The event was supported by the Arts Council of Wales’ “Noson Allan” or “Night Out” scheme and they and BMJ were rewarded with the biggest crowd this venue has seen for a long, long time. It all made for a cracking atmosphere and Gillespie, Atzmon and co. responded with a well structured but dynamic performance with the irrepressible Atzmon frequently sharing the spotlight with the singer.

It was very different to much of the jazz previously seen at this venue. Gillespie is a wordsmith, her provocative, exotic, enigmatic and above all poetic lyrical images are influenced by Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits. Her singing voice embraces both Middle Eastern exotica and Amy Winehouse style glottal stops. She’s more boho rock chick than jazz diva and is all the better for it, a real original. She needs to be, it’s no easy matter sharing a stage with the huge and charismatic personality that is Gilad Atzmon. But for all his irreverence Atzmon is a phenomenal musician and his brilliant playing soon won over any potential doubters. 

The Gillespie quartet have been on the road for some time and it came as no surprise that this was such a well drilled performance. Gillespie’s chosen material was split pretty much equally between “In The Current Climate” and the earlier “Stalking Juliet” (2009) plus a couple of radically rearranged outside items which we’ll come to later. She accompanied herself on acoustic guitar throughout with Atzmon switching between a bewildering array of instruments viz clarinet, soprano sax, piano accordion and harmonica. Ben Bastin provided great rhythmic drive on double bass utilising a variety of techniques-orthodox plucking, rich, dark bowing and dramatic flamenco style strumming. Also something of a showman he certainly wasn’t overshadowed by the two exotic front persons. Bastin’s partner in rhythm was the quartet’s new drummer, Italian ex- pat Enzo Zirilli who has taken over from Asaf Sirkis and also appears on the new record. His crisp, intelligent playing also added considerably to the overall group sound. 

The quartet began with “In The Current Climate”, the opening and title track of Gillespie’s new album, with Atzmon on clarinet adding his now famous quote from Rimsky Korsakoff’s “Flight Of The Bumblebee”. At this point in the proceedings Gillespie’s vocals were rather buried in the mix but there was a gradual improvement as the evening progressed.

Nest up was “Big Mistake”, the first of a trio of songs from “Stalking Juliet”. Although the current tour is ostensibly in support of the new album it was perhaps no great surprise to see its predecessor so well represented. ” In The Current Climate” is a more reflective, more acoustic album. “Stalking Juliet” brims with bright hooks and stirring band arrangements as this rousing triple salvo proved. “Big Mistake” featured Atzmon on clarinet before he switched to double up on accordion and harmonica on both “How The Mighty Fall”, which was once released as a single, and “Don’t Be Sorry”.

Gillespie and her band then tackled the first of the evening’s two covers. The original recession song “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” was written in 1923 by Jimmy Cox and made famous by the “Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith. Gillespie and Atzmon very much made the song theirs with Gillespie’s stylised, breathy vocals quickly claiming ownership. They injected a touch of humour with a dazzling clarinet feature from Atzmon culminating in a series of false endings as Gillespie and Atzmon came up with some musical jousting to rival their on stage verbal sparring. The pair were constantly good naturedly bickering and flirting with each other- at one point even Bastin got in on the act- but it’s all part of the show, ever the entertainer Atzmon just can’t resist it. Although their version of the tune doesn’t appear on either of Gillespie’s albums it crops on the B side (if they still have such things) of the “How The Mighty Fall” single.

From the new album the song “Lucifer’s High Chair” seems to have taken on a life of its own since being taken out on the road.  Predominately delicate and acoustic on the album it has gained momentum with a full band arrangement featuring Atzmon’s accordion and Bastin’s lusty backing vocals. 

To close the first half Gillespie and Atzmon added an element of politics to the proceedings. From the new album the song “How The West Was Won” is a tale of “extraordinary rendition” related from the viewpoint of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner. Ushered in by Zirilli’s dramatic, atmospheric and hugely impressive drum and cymbal set piece the song teams Gillespie’s graphic lyrics with Atzmon’s caustic soprano sax and Bastin’s powerful flamenco bass strumming. It was strong stuff , after which both band and audience deserved a well earned breather.

Something of a bonus came in the intermission when BMJ promoter Mike Skilton introduced his saxophone playing daughter Martha to the stage to play a few numbers with members of the local workshop band. A nervous but very competent all female saxophone quartet played their way through five short pieces and were warmly applauded by an appreciative BMJ crowd plus Ben Bastin who could be seen clapping enthusiastically at the bar. It was all part of BMJ’s attempts to support local musicians and formed a most pleasant diversion. Martha is something of a regular at BMJ, sitting in with visiting musicians or leading her own groups. A review of a 2009 show featuring her quintet is to be found elsewhere on this site. 

When Gillespie and Atzmon returned to the stage it was initially as a duo, a reflection of the more acoustic direction taken on the new album “In The Current Climate”. From that record the rather slight “I Forget To Get Off Trains” was expanded upon considerably with a clarinet showcase for Atzmon which saw him using the instrument to imitate the human laugh.

Bastin joined them for the wordy “character” song “Sad Lucia”, alternating between pizzicato and arco bass. In trio format they also performed another tune from the new album, “Spinning Lines” , a song about lying which Gillespie dedicated, almost inevitably to Nick Clegg. She’d already had a swipe at Tony Blair when introducing “How The Mighty Fall”. Shame she didn’t have a go at Cameron as well to complete the set. Musically the tune showed off her skilled acoustic guitar picking at its best as Atzmon switched from clarinet to soprano sax.

Zirilli returned to the stage at this point, his drums adding considerable weight (maybe even a little too much) to the exotic and driving “Nova Scotia” with Atzmon back on clarinet. The hooky “Million Moons” from “Stalking Juliet” kept the energy levels up with Atzmon this time on accordion. He stuck with this for “Cinematic Nectar”, shorn here of its electronics but completely retaining its agreeably sleazy Kurt Weill/Tom Waits atmosphere.

The jazz standard “All Of Me” surrendered completely to the Gillespie/Atzmon treatment with Gilad’s dazzling scat vocal a real show stopper. It was then into the home straight with an exaggeratedly bluesy version of Stalking’s “Malicious Salome” with Atzmon on soprano sax.

They finished with a storming version of “Stalking Juliet” itself, fuelled by Atzmon’s turbo charged soprano. In a packed venue there was no chance of them leaving the stage so for an “encore” they cooled things down with a relatively gentle version of “Sleep Talking”, the closing track on “Stalking Juliet”. 

This had been an excellent show and a second triumph on the trot for the quartet. I was pleased to hear that they’d sold out The Edge in Much Wenlock the previous evening and had a great night there too.

The only disappointment was losing something of the sense of Gillespie’s words in the maelstrom of the band’s sound. The lyrics come over better on the albums, but as the old truism says, the studio and the live gig are totally different environments and live it would seem that a degree of clarity is almost inevitably going to be sacrificed on the altar of entertainment and excitement. And make no mistake, this is a SHOW and a very good one, qualities Atzmon learned during his tenure with the late, great Ian Dury. Gillespie and Atzmon draw the people in, making their performances an event, the subtleties can be appreciated later on CD.

I just wish they’d had a go at the fabulous tongue twisting lyric of Current Climate’s “Junkyard Angel”. Now that would have been something.         

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