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Zena James



by Ian Mann

December 09, 2010


If less than profound "Captivated" is still a classy piece of work.

Zena James


(Splash Point Digital- Digital catalogue no. SPD002  
                        Album catalogue no. ZJSPD002)

Back in 2007 I reviewed London based jazz/soul singer Zena James’ début recording “Tell Me More”, a highly accomplished first album made in the company of an excellent band. Three years on James is back with “Captivated” which again teams her with an all star line up. This time round her group includes saxophonist Simon Allen and drummer Mike Bradley, both of whom appeared on her previous album. The piano chair is taken by Rob Taggart with bass duties being split between electric bassist Patrick Bettison and double bassist Paul Morgan who lends his acoustic sound to three of the more obviously jazzy numbers.

James has a background in pop and soul bands having come to jazz fairly late under the mentor-ship of fellow vocalist Trudy Kerr. “Tell Me More” appeared on Kerr’s Jazzizit label but this new recording is self released on the Sussex based Splash Point Music, another label which seems to specialise in the recording of singers. A sense of continuity remains as the album has again been recorded at Derek Nash’s Clown’s Pocket Studio with Nash engineering and producing to his customarily high technical standards.

The material features a mix of jazz and pop standards with James, Taggart and Bradley sharing the arranging duties, plus a couple of originals composed by James and Taggart. It’s an original that opens the album with James’ sultry, soulful vocals combining with Taggart’s funky Rhodes and Hammond plus Allen’s smoky sax. It’s in the jazz/funk/soul bag, nothing earth shattering but skilfully done with a confident vocal and tasty instrumental solos from Allen on sax and Taggart on Rhodes.

“Gypsy In My Soul” dates back to 1937 but is given a similar treatment with Taggart (this time on acoustic piano) and Allan again the soloists. Bettison and Bradley keep the grooves tight and James delivers another strong soul/jazz performance.

James and her band deliver a persuasive after hours version of the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature”. Taggart’s arrangement features Allen switching to sinuous soprano sax.

James is wistful on the early sixties tune “That Sunday, That Summer” with Paul Morgan and Bradley providing a suitably relaxed groove that cushions the tasteful solos from Taggart on piano and Allen on tenor.

The second James/Taggart original is “You Move Me” which pairs James’ seductive vocal with Bettison’s liquid bass groove. Bettison also marks his return to the fold with an agile, high register electric bass solo followed by Taggart at the piano.

Barry Gray’s “Dangerous Game” with its card playing imagery sounds as if it should be a James Bond soundtrack. Instead it comes from the puppet show Thunderbirds- apparently Gray wrote regularly for the Gerry Anderson empire but I can’t say that I remember this one from childhood. In any event it features a typically soulful jazz and blues tinged vocal from James, purring double bass from Morgan and imaginative Latin flavoured percussion from Bradley. Allen’s sax is suitably grainy, you can just see the smoke rings curling above the card tables.

Rob Taggart’s arrangement of Glen Ballard and Sananda Maitreya’s 2001 song “Shadows” adds Bradley’s hip hop grooves to the familiar pop/soul/jazz elements. It’s the most contemporary sounding song on the album and suggests that James could enjoy considerable crossover success given the right breaks.

Lieber and Stoller’s classic “Some Cats Know” is a favourite with any female singer who likes to play the streetwise vamp. James makes a fair job of it (although there are better versions around) and her band of cats, with Morgan on double bass, get a chance to stretch out too. Bradley’s drum feature suggests that he’s enjoying himself immensely.

The inclusion of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can Only Be Me” acknowledges James’ soul background.  She turns in a particularly impressive performance in this beautiful arrangement for just voice and piano. Taggart’s sensitive accompaniment deserves praise too.

Lewis Taylor’s 2000 tune “You Make Me Wanna” initially sounds like a routine funk/soul workout with Taggart on electric keyboards but as the song develops Allen’s garrulous sax and a vaguely ominous groove hint at something more.

Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic” dates back to 1942. Whether the James’ group’s funk/soul version adds anything to this very familiar item is debatable but Bettison’s bass feature and elastic groove are enjoyable enough.

Bradley’s arrangement of the 1939 song “Comes Love” re-locates it firmly in funk/hip hop territory with the drummer’s implacable groove anchoring it all together. James playful but soulful delivery is interspersed by features for Taggart (on Rhodes), Allen and Bettison.

Although there’s nothing particularly radical about “Captivated” it’s still an enjoyable album. James’s warm, soulful voice is well suited to her chosen material, the arrangements are imaginative and intelligent, the playing excellent and Nash’s pinpoint production brings out the details beautifully. It’s essentially a jazz/pop/soul hybrid and the lack of heavy duty jazz content may deter some listeners but for me there’s just enough substance there to keep things interesting.

James’ performance also suggests that she’s a singer who is likely to be at her best in a live situation, preferably in a club environment where the warmth of her delivery would be accentuated. Also the album arrangements suggest that she’d be prepared to allow her instrumentalists the opportunity to stretch out.

If less than profound “Captivated” is still a classy piece of work.

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