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Shirley Smart

Long Story Short


by Ian Mann

April 26, 2019


The album covers an impressive amount of musical and geographical ground with its range of styles and influences. Smart’s playing, both with and without the bow, is exceptional throughout,

Shirley Smart

“Long Story Short”

(33 Records 33XTREME016)

“Long Story Short” represents the leadership début from the London based cellist Shirley Smart.

One of the UK’s leading cello improvisers Smart is a musician who is comfortable across a variety of musical genres, embracing jazz, folk, world and classical elements. She has previously appeared on the Jazzmann web pages on several occasions, most notably leading her aptly named ‘world jazz’  group Melange. A review of the 2016 Melange album release “Via Maris” appears elsewhere on the Jazzmann website and can be read here;

Smart has also appeared on recordings by pianist/accordionist Maurizio Minardi (a Melange group member) and by violinist/vocalist Alice Zawadzki. Others with whom she has worked include pianists Neil Cowley, Meg Morley, Steve Beresford and Elliot Galvin, saxophonist Binker Golding and guitarists Maciek Pysz and Antonio Forcione.

Smart has also performed with fellow cellist (and vocalist) Kate Shortt as the duo Shortt and Smart.
She also plays in the duo format with the acclaimed pianist and composer Robert Mitchell.

In 2018 Smart was part of the all female ten piece band Interchange that made its début at Cheltenham Jazz Festival under the leadership of baritone saxophonist and composer Issie Barratt. My review of that performance can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;

Other ongoing projects include the ten piece Sefiroth ensemble, led by guitarist Alex Roth, which explores the music of the Sephardic (Judeo Spanish) tradition whilst drawing on a range of other Middle Eastern and North African influences.

Meanwhile the smaller Balagan Café Band, a trio featuring guitarist Christian Miller and violinist Richard Jones roams even further afield, taking in gypsy jazz, Argentinian tango, Balkan folk music and more.

Sawa, a trio with Iraqi born vocalist Alya Al-Sultani and pianist Clemens Poetsczh improvises around Iraqi and Arabic folk themes and released an eponymous EP in 2016.

“Long Story Short” can be seen as an extension of Smart’s work with Melange as it blends together elements of jazz, Arabic, Turkish and North African music.  Recorded by a core trio of Smart on cello, John Crawford on piano and Demi Garcia-Sabat on drum kit and percussion the album also includes contributions from a number of illustrious guest musicians including Orphy Robinson on vibraphone, Nikki Iles on accordion and, most notably, Nicolas Meier on guitar.

In my review of “Via Maris” I wrote;
“At times it reminded me of the kind of ‘world jazz’ played by such London based artists as Nicolas Meier and Jonny Phillips (Oriole), and maybe even Alec Dankworth’s ‘Spanish Accents’ group too. Of these Meier, with his fascination for Turkish and Middle Eastern music, is easily the closest parallel with Sabat having also played in Meier’s band (plus Dankworth’s too on occasion). Perhaps the percussionist could act as the catalyst for a collaboration between Smart and Meier, a tantalising prospect”.

Now, with Sabat indeed acting as a catalyst, that collaboration has come to fruition. I’d like to think that I may have been something of a catalyst too!

Smart’s own story is a fascinating one. Classically trained at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama under Raphael Wallfisch and in Paris with Janos Starker she relocated to Jerusalem in 1989. Although initially intending to stay for a year Smart remained in the city for a full decade, fully immersing herself in the diverse range of musics to be heard in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.

A chance meeting in a Jerusalem restaurant led to Smart joining the Moroccan jazz fusion group Sound of the Ground and she subsequently became a part of several other musical projects and ensembles playing a variety of Middle Eastern and North African musics and touring extensively throughout those regions.  Among those with whom she worked are the well known Israeli musicians Avisahai Cohen and Omer Avital (both bassists and composers) plus singer and songwriter Yasmin Levy.  She has also performed with the veteran Ethiopian vibraphonist, percussionist and bandleader Mulato Astatke, the father of Ethio-jazz.

An acclaimed educator Smart held teaching posts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah before eventually returning to London where she is currently leading the London Cello Society’s “Beyond Cello” programme which incorporates workshops and performances examining the role of the cello in jazz, world music and more.

The majority of the thirteen tracks on “Long Story Short” are Smart originals and the album commences with the cellist’s “Waltz for an Amethyst”, a vibrant, highly rhythmic piece played by the core trio. The influence of Avishai Cohen has been suggested with Smart soloing pizzicato in virtuoso fashion as well as carrying the melody with her vigorous bowing elsewhere. Crawford, a supremely versatile pianist with an extensive knowledge of global music styles, is also in sparkling form here with a lively and percussive solo, while Sabat is a driving presence behind the kit.

Smart’s travels have led to her developing an affinity for the music of the oud. Melange includes the Greek born oud player Stefanos Tsourelis but it’s “Halfouine”, written by the great Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem that is performed here. Smart’s plucked cello approximates the sound of the oud while guest vibraphonist Orphy Robinson sprinkles his magic over the piece. Smart also features with the bow while Sabat plays a variety of exotic sounding percussion rather than kit drums.

“Longa Kismet” was written by Melange guitarist Peter Michaels and teams Smart with Nicolas Meier for the first time on a lively piece that also includes another excellent piano solo from Crawford. Sabat’s use of cajon and palmas brings a flamenco element to the performance and there is plenty of fiery playing from both Smart and Meier.

To Western ears the first three pieces are jam packed with exotic elements from the Middle East, North Africa and Andalusia but the Smart original “Mobius Blues” is just that, a straight-ahead, swinging blues tune, albeit one led by the cello. Again Smart treats the cello as an ‘entire instrument’ providing a walking pizzicato bass line behind Crawford’s piano solo but flourishing the bow in the manner of a low register Stephane Grappelli elsewhere. Sabat, back behind the kit, enjoys a series of lively breaks as he ‘trades fours’ with his colleagues.

Another Smart original, “Opals”, slows things down for the first time. A stately and lyrical ballad it features that melancholic cello sound that is so often associated with classical music. This haunting and effective composition also features Crawford at his most lyrical while percussionist Sabat also produces a delightfully sensitive and nuanced performance that is enhanced by its attention to detail.

The traditional “Balkan Tune” has its roots in the folk music of Macedonia. Introduced by a short passage of unaccompanied cello it evolves into an improvised dialogue between Smart and Meier, these two quickly joined by Sabat. Eventually the lively 7/8 tune emerges, one that Smart has been playing for many years and one which has lent itself to many different interpretations. On the album’s lengthiest track there are expansive solos from both Smart and Meier, the latter bringing with him some of the Turkish influences that inform his own music. The consistently excellent Crawford also impresses with his own solo, as does the effervescent Sabat on a variety of percussion.

“Intro” is a little over a minute and a half of richly atmospheric solo cello that ushers in the Smart original “Crossfire”. Close your eyes and you could be in the desert at night.
“Crossfire” itself features oud like cello plus Meier on guitar. It’s a dense, highly rhythmic piece with densely interweaving melody lines and an almost claustrophobic intensity.

“Hegel’s Tune” is initially more relaxed and features Nikki Iles, better known as a pianist, guesting very effectively on accordion. Smart and Iles combine skilfully to atmospheric effect on this slow burner of a tune,  sometimes bringing something of a Parisian musette feel to the music. Crawford continues to occupy the piano chair and features briefly before the waters are muddied by a more dramatic, intense, wilfully discordant section distinguished by spiky textures and wilful dissonances. Out of this emerges a brief celebratory episode before the piece turns full circle to end as it began. As a composer Smart delights in putting plenty of twists and turns into her pieces, mixing up moods and styles.

“Sambuca” is relatively more straightforward, remaining upbeat and celebratory almost throughout and incorporating a dazzling guitar solo from Meier. Crawford also impresses at the piano as does the leader with a stunning pizzicato solo, her playing reminiscent of a top jazz bassist. And she’s pretty handy with the bow too!

Robinson returns on vibes for “Orinoco Lane”, one of the album’s most obviously ‘jazz’ tunes as it draws on swing and bebop influences. Smart and Robinson team up well and share solos, with leader again supplying ‘cello bass’ during the solos from Robinson and Crawford.

Garcia’s percussion introduces the similarly perky “Tetouan”, which includes a sparkling solo from Crawford and some virtuoso bowing from the consistently impressive Smart. There’s also a drum/percussion feature for Sabat, an unobtrusive but consistently galvanising figure throughout the album.

The album concludes with the traditional Algerian tune “Ticaraca Tchoub”, introduced by solo pizzicato cello with Smart’s playing of the melody subsequently supported by Sabat’s drums and percussion. Then we’re suddenly into full on band mode with the sound of the core trio augmented by Iles on accordion. Iles’ solo quickly establishes the fact that she is also a virtuoso on this instrument. With the irrepressible Sabat driving the music forward there’s an irresistible joyousness about the performance, a quality that remains even in the quieter moments, such as Smart’s delightful duo exchanges with pianist Crawford.

“Long Story Short” represents another impressive offering from Smart and is a worthy début under her own name. The album covers an impressive amount of musical and geographical ground with its range of styles and influences. Smart’s playing, both with and without the bow, is exceptional throughout, fluent and inventive and variously fiery or emotive as required. Crawford and Garcia both make excellent contributions as part of an intelligent and well balanced trio and the playing of the three guests is also exceptional. The recorded sound is also excellent throughout with Smart leading an engineering team featuring Nick Pugh, Peter Michaels and Peter Beckmann.

I appreciate that Smart’s blend of ‘world jazz’, played on an instrument that is still unusual for the music, won’t suit some jazz purists. But to these ears that’s their loss, Smart’s music lives up to her name – it is smart, intelligent, sophisticated and adventurous. I can’t claim to understand all the subtleties between the different varieties of music on offer here but it’s fun trying. Above all it still sounds exotic and exciting and fans of Nicolas Meier, Anouar Brahem, Dhafer Youssef and even Gilad Atzmon should find much to enjoy here.

I believe the album launch gigs have already taken place, but it would be good if Smart got the opportunity to tour this music more widely.


From Shirley Smart via Facebook;

Thanks so much for the lovely review - very thorough!! I just thought I’d let you know also that I appreciated your prescience in the earlier Melange review about a collaboration with Nic Meier - it did indeed occur!! It was always a possibility, and Demi was certainly a catalyst, as was your comment in that review - it confirmed our thoughts that it would be a good collab!! Anyway, many thanks for all the great work, and this review. Best, Shirley ????

From Demi Garcia Sabat via Facebook;

Nice one!!

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