by Ian Mann
January 04, 2019
The quality of her song writing remains high, the songs again combining the personal with the political in intelligent, poetic and evocative fashion. An excellent addition to the Gillespie canon.
“Wishbones” is the fourth full length recording from the Anglo-American singer, guitarist and songwriter Sarah Gillespie.
Gillespie initially burst onto the scene in 2009 with her remarkable début album “Stalking Juliet”, which featured the playing, arrangements and production of multi-instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon. The album attracted considerable critical acclaim for its intelligent, literate and highly evocative songwriting, qualities that were enhanced by the excellence of the playing from Atzmon and other jazz luminaries, among them bassist Ben Bastin, drummer Asaf Sirkis and pianist John Turville.
At first it was tempting to think of Gillespie as merely Atzmon’s protégée but the follow up, “In The Current Climate” (2011), saw the singer asserting herself more and making a greater instrumental contribution on an album that featured sparser arrangements, but without sacrificing anything in terms of musical and emotional impact.
Although taking something of a back seat on “Current Climate” Atzmon played a prominent role on the semi-conceptual four track EP “The War On Trevor” (2012), Gillespie’s most overtly political work to date.
In the summer of 2012 Gillespie and her regular bandmates Ben Bastin (bass) and Enzo Zirilli (drums) appeared at Brecon Jazz Festival alongside pianist Kit Downes. The gig was promoted by the Black Mountain Jazz Club from nearby Abergavenny, where Gillespie had performed previously to great acclaim. With Atzmon unavailable due to teaching commitments BMJ’s Mike Skilton suggested Downes as a replacement. The Festival gig was a triumph and Gillespie played further shows with Downes that summer, the pair establishing a fruitful working relationship. Following the release of “Wishbones” Mike is justifiably proud of his role in bringing them together.
Gillespie’s third full length album, 2013’s “Glory Days” featured both Atzmon and Downes, alongside Bastin and Zirilli. Atzmon again played multiple instruments and acted as producer while Downes guested, adding a couple of barnstorming piano solos.
Gillespie then took some time out from music to start a family, only fully returning to the scene in 2018 with new album “Wishbones”. Not that she’d been entirely out of commission during the interim, having published a poetry collection, “Queen Ithaca Blues” and having toured an as yet unrecorded project paying homage to the music of blues singer Bessie Smith. She also released the digital only mini-album “Roundhouse Bounty”.
“Wishbones” represents a brave new world for Gillespie as she unveils a brand new band led by Downes on piano and organ and with a core quartet featuring Ruth Goller on bass and James Maddren at the drums. There are also substantial contributions from Chris Montague on electric guitar, Laura Jurd on trumpet and Emma Devine on backing vocals. Downes also acts as arranger and producer, effectively taking over the role previously filled by Atzmon.
However long term Gillespie fans, such as myself, should have nothing to fear. The qualities that have made Gillespie’s music so distinctive are still here in abundance, particularly the lyrics which continue to tread a fine (and highly convincing) line between the political and the personal. It’s an album that’s very much informed by the spirit of the times with Gillespie’s liner notes stating;
“This album contains tales of people hunting for home, people who cross mountain ranges and oceans desperate for respite, people who rise from the dead to reclaim their land, people who stand perfectly still but feel lost. This album is also about finding home for the first time and kissing it on the lips”.
It’s a moot point whether Gillespie should be regarded as a jazz singer. She’s always worked with jazz performers and as such has become part of the jazz circuit but her songwriting is informed by figures as diverse as Bessie Smith, Cole Porter, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits with the Beat Generation poets also cited as a significant influence. Indeed Gillespie is something of a polymath, she also has a parallel career as an accomplished modern painter and hold degrees in Literature and Philosophy & Politics. These are all qualities that inform her work, and she has the vocal and instrumental chops to make all these sources cohere into a thoroughly convincing whole – with the help of an absolutely terrific band, of course.
Album opener “Russian Interference” incorporates typically evocative lyrical imagery, depicting the typical human proclivity of blaming a single outside force for all of life’s misfortunes. Gillespie’s acoustic guitar plays a significant part in the arrangement alongside piano, bass and drums, but it’s Montague’s brief, but stinging electric guitar solo that steals the instrumental honours.
“Coup D’Etat” is a swaggering romp full of daring lyrical wordplay and featuring some raucous New Orleans style trumpet from Jurd, this juxtaposed with another powerful, rock influenced guitar solo from Montague. Meanwhile Gillespie sings with great bravado and demonstrates her talent for creating memorable, rousing choruses amidst the verbal dexterity.
“Seasick”, lowers the temperature, a simple but evocative acoustic ballad featuring the leader’s acoustic guitar and voice, Devine’s rich vocal harmonies and Downes’ lustrous piano. It’s a love song, of sorts, as is the following “You Win”, which again demonstrates Gillespie’s ability to craft a memorable chorus. Elsewhere her lyrical imagery is dark, poetic, evocative and slyly humorous with Downes on surging, gospel tinged Hammond and Montague on soaring electric guitar providing the instrumental highlights, the pair urged on by Maddren’s dynamic drumming.
Incidentally Gillespie and Devine recently performed an entirely acoustic version of this song on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and it was still equally effective.
Jurd’s trumpet features on the atmospheric introduction to “The Ballad Of Standing Rock”. In an interview for London Jazz News Gillespie described the subject matter of the song thus;
“It’s a story song. It’s about a guy in long-term unemployment travelling to the Indian reservation of Standing Rock in North Dakota to get a job as a construction engineer. He is confronted by thousands of protesters and discovers that the Dakota Access Pipeline he’s hoping to help build will slash through ancient sacred Indian land. The guy crashes out drunk in his motel and wakes up in the night 200 years ago with Indians ruling their own land and herds of stampeding buffalo outside his motel window.”
And what a story she tells, her sympathies firmly with the Native Americans whose land is being usurped. The lyrical imagery is rich, evocative, poetic, and, where appropriate, convincingly hallucinatory. Meanwhile the music covers a wide dynamic range, brilliantly echoing and mirroring Gillespie’s words. Montague’s slide guitar adds an authentic slice of Americana, Jurd’s trumpet growls angrily, combining venomously with Montague’s increasingly distorted guitar. Like all good stories it has a beginning, a middle and an end with the final section featuring Devine’s anthemic harmonies and Downes’ rollicking piano in conjunction with Jurd’s soaring trumpet. Downes even adds a little Hammond prior to Gillespie’s gentle acoustic coda. This is truly epic stuff, the combination of words, voices and instruments richly evocative and totally effective.
Title track “Wishbones” is another twisted love song with its lyrical undercurrent of domestic violence and another memorable chorus. There’s more scabrous guitar from Montague, who makes every one of his solos count throughout the album. Downes doubles on piano and organ, briefly soloing on the latter.
The only non-original song on the album is an effective cover of the traditional American folk song “Moonshiner” in a suitably rootsy arrangement featuring Gillespie’s acoustic finger picking and Montague’s evocative slide guitar. It’s an unsentimental version of a song whose author remains unknown - “I wish I could go back in time and shake their hand”, remarks Gillespie.
Part of the reason for Gillespie’s five year semi withdrawal from the scene was the birth of her now three year old daughter, the subject of the song “Susannah Threw A Helicopter”. The lyrics are compiled from Susannah’s nursery school reports and present a convincing picture of childhood. Gillespie doesn’t shy away from how vicious children can be towards one another, there is theft, violence and territorialism in these tales, reflections of the adult world these children will grow into. But there’s a genuine maternal tenderness in Gillespie’s writing too, it’s not as bleak a song as Richard Thompson’s “End Of The Rainbow” or Peter Hammill’s “Wilhelmina”, although Hammill did at least offer some semblance of hope. That said most songs written about children are pretty sentimental and cringe worthy - with her balance of realism and tenderness, laced with a sly humour, Gillespie avoids falling into that particular trap.
From the deeply personal Gillespie now gravitates to two linked, overtly political pieces to conclude the album. “The Last Of The Good Time Charlies” is a rollicking lampoon of the ‘Little Englander Brexiteer’ with its images of a lost “imperial nostalgia” - street parties, red telephone boxes, etc. Jurd’s brassy trumpet plays a substantial part in the intentionally bombastic arrangement.
The album concludes with “The Theft Of Marco Munoz”, a Honduran immigrant who hanged himself in a Texan jail after the US border patrol forcibly separated him from his family. “ Marco is the dark-skinned immigrant in the imagination of Charlie” says Gillespie, explaining the link between the two songs. Here, as if to highlight the contrast between Marco and Charlie the arrangement is deliberately sparse, just acoustic guitars and voices with Gillespie’s singing augmented by the evocative harmonies of Devine.
It’s been a long time coming but “Wishbones” is an excellent addition to the Gillespie canon. The quality of her song writing remains high, the songs again combining the personal with the political in intelligent, poetic and evocative fashion. It’s also good to hear her in the company of an excellent new band, this one masterminded by Kit Downes who excels in his role of arranger and producer as well as contributing some fine playing. Goller and Maddren combine to form a highly effective and supportive rhythm section while the cameos from Montague and Jurd add vibrant and iridescent splashes of colour, sometimes threatening to steal the show. Gillespie plays well, sings with great assurance and seems to have lost nothing of her creative spark.
The reviews for “Wishbones” have been overwhelmingly positive and Gillespie remains an artist with the potential to appeal to a wider following than the specialist jazz audience. Fans of the songwriters she admires such as Dylan, Waits, Mitchell and Leonard Cohen would do well to check her out. I’ve already converted my brother in law Mick, an avowed jazz hater but an avid Dylan-ologist to the Gillespie cause.
Gillespie will be touring the album in 2019. Please visit http://www.sarahgillespie.com for details of events.blog comments powered by Disqus