Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

March 06, 2013


A typically classy and sophisticated piece of work from three highly experienced musicians and a thoroughly convincing blend of their collective jazz and blues influences.

Zoe Schwarz, Rob Koral, Ian Ellis

“Slow Burn”

(33 Jazz 33jazz229)

Now based in Poole, Dorset the husband and wife team of vocalist Zoe Schwarz and guitarist Rob Koral are highly skilled purveyors of both jazz and blues with their album releases drawing on the best of both genres. The intimate duo album “Celebration” (2009) drew largely on their shared jazz heritage whereas “Blue Commotion” (2011), a band album recorded by an all star quintet placed a greater focus on the blues, something that was continued on “Good Times” (2012), a second Blue Commotion offering recorded by a different line up. Blue Commotion, the band, can arguably be regarded as the natural successor to the Baddest Blues Band Ever which Schwarz and Koral fronted for a number of years.

In essence “Slow Burn” marks a return to the duo’s more jazz influenced style although the blues is never far away.  Besides the recent blues orientated offerings Schwarz has also recorded a series of classy and sophisticated jazz albums over the course of the last decade or so. Like most of their back catalogue the latest Schwarz/Koral album appears on the consistently excellent 33 Jazz record label, evidence that although Schwarz and Koral may have quit the hurly burly of the London scene they remain highly accomplished professional musicians. 

The material on “Slow Burn” consists of a typically diverse selection of jazz and blues standards plus a couple of originals by Koral and his song-writing partner Sue Hawker, once vocalist with the fondly remembered band Sketch which also featured Koral. Schwarz has always been an astute selector of tunes to cover and she and Koral always bring plenty of themselves to their chosen material. Broadly speaking “Slow Burn” represents a follow up to the 2009 duo album “Celebration” but this time round the instrumental palette is extended by the addition of the tenor saxophone of Ian Ellis, a frequent collaborator of the duo who appeared both on Schwarz’s earlier album for 33 “Step Up” and on Koral’s solo recording “Grace Notes”.   

It’s the unaccompanied sound of Ellis’ horn that introduces the album, a solo sax cadenza at the beginning of Bobby Troup and Leah Worth’s “The Meaning Of The Blues”. Ellis proves to be a good foil to guitarist Rob Koral who nevertheless remains a superb accompanist, enhancing Schwarz’s singing with a mixture of subtle chording and elegant single note lines. Schwarz herself remains a sublime interpreter of a lyric and she invests this tune with just the right amount of yearning bluesiness. The same applies to the following number , another tune firmly rooted in the blues, Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter’s “The Blues Are Brewin’” complete with a pithy blues inflected sax solo from Ellis.

The first Koral/Hawker song of the collection finds the trio in more obvious jazz territory. As previous Schwarz/Koral releases have demonstrated Koral and Hawker have developed a knack of writing original songs that sound as if they might be standards. There’s more than a hint of blues, plus a touch of pop, here with Koral’s unaccompanied solo mid tune the instrumental highlight.

Performed by the core duo of Schwarz and Koral Morton Krause’s “Baby I Don’t Cry Over You” is a playful declaration of female independence and resilience in the world of the dating wars.

Ellis returns for Matt Dennis and Earl Brent’s “Angel Eyes” duetting warmly with Koral on the intro. Schwarz’s vocal is sultry and bluesy with Ellis’ tenor adding a smoky, after hours feel. A hugely impressive trio performance.

The Koral/Hawker “Bye Bye Baby See You When I Get Home” is another song of female independence wrapped up inside a witty, globe-trotting lyric. Musically it’s a good demonstration of Koral’s ability to play bass and melody lines simultaneously with the cherry on the top coming in the form of Ellis’ fruity tenor sax.

The Johnny Green / Edward Heyman jazz standard “I Cover The Waterfront” is presaged by a passage of solo guitar with Koral adopting a semi acoustic sound. Schwarz delivers the lyric movingly and at an exaggeratedly slow pace with Ellis adding an equally eloquent tenor sax solo.

“I Can Dream” is another sophisticated “Koral/Hawker” original featuring Koral’s warm toned electric sound and Ellis’ complementary tenor alongside Schwarz’s characteristically elegant vocal. The trio are augmented by Blue Commotion member Paul Robinson’s understated percussion.

The surprise package here is the inclusion Jack Bruce’s “We’re Going Wrong” from the Cream album “Disraeli Gears”. Introduced by Ellis’ tenor and stripped back to its bluesy essentials it works well with Koral adopting a wah wah sound. The trio bring plenty of themselves to the song whilst retaining something of the period charm of the original.

“Detour Ahead” (Johnny Frigo/Lou Carter/Herb Ellis) is taken at an elegant crawl with Schwarz at the peak of her interpretative powers.

“Blues for Mama”, written by female jazz icons Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln marks a return to unabashed blues territory with Schwarz’s singing at its most powerful on this tale of marital unfaithfulness and domestic violence. The instrumental backing by Koral and Ellis is appropriately insistent and earthy. The final Koral/Hawker offering almost comes as light relief despite the fact that the lyric explores similar territory albeit in a rather more genteel and English way.

Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep For Me” is given a sparse blues inflected reading with Koral’s superb guitar work at the heart of the arrangement and with an excellent contribution from Ellis.

The album ends as it began - with the blues. Lloyd C. Glenn Sr. and Lowell Fulson’s “Sinner’s Prayer” features Schwarz’s authentically impassioned vocals alongside Koral’s taut guitar picking and Ellis’ bluesy, smoky tenor. It’s a highly appropriate valedictory. 

Schwarz’s notes explain that “Slow Burn” was recorded in a “live room” with only the minimum of studio separation. The trio were keen to promote a “tangibly live feel” to the music and in this respect they succeed brilliantly with the intimacy of the performances captured with pinpoint clarity by the engineering/production team of Koral and Mike Hallett. In any event high production standards can be taken as a given with pretty much any 33 Jazz release.

Schwarz and Koral are a superlative duo as the earlier “Celebration” album amply demonstrated but the additional colour provided by Ellis’ always tasteful saxophone takes the music to another level. “Slow Burn” represents a typically classy and sophisticated piece of work from three highly experienced musicians and is a thoroughly convincing blend of their collective jazz and blues influences.

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