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Zena James

Tell Me More


by Ian Mann

March 14, 2007


An assured debut album from this versatile singer with support from an outstanding band.

Singer Zena James is among the protégés of Trudy Kerr of the Jazzizit label. James is a relative latecomer to jazz having previously been involved with more pop/soul/blues material. Her introduction to jazz came about when she studied on a jazz course in Richmond run by bassist Dave Jones. Trudy Kerr, a fine singer herself, was James’ first teacher and she was also helped by the recently departed vocalist Anita O’Day. One of James’ first big breaks was sitting in at one of O’Day’s gigs at the Pizza on the Park in 2004.

For her debut album James has a fine band around her. Kerr’s husband Geoff Gascoyne plays bass and helps with the arranging duties. Gascoyne is of course Jamie Cullum’s musical right hand man. Pianist Geoff Castle (ex Nucleus) also helps with the arrangements, as does drummer Mike Bradley. Talented young saxophonist Simon Allen completes the line up. The recording matches up to the high technical standards we have come to expect from the label with Derek Nash again undertaking the engineering and production duties.

The material includes a couple of originals, some rarely heard standards alongside some better known material plus Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” which closes the album. The arrangements are sparse and funky with Gascoyne’s muscular bass almost leading from the front.

The first two tunes “My Love Is” and “Comes Love” are good introductions to the group sound and pleasant enough but it is on Billie Holiday’s “Tell Me More And Then Some”(effectively the title track) that things really take off. James’ sultry vocals and Allen’s saxophone first smoky, then wailing, make for a great slow burning blues. I love this version of the song. James’ version of Holiday’s “Fine And Mellow” is nearly as fine. Her sassy and funky take on the tune imbues it with a totally different mood to Holiday’s heartbroken original.

Allen shows up well again on “You’re My Thrill”, with Castle taking the instrumental honours on his arrangement (with James) of the ballad “You’ve Changed”.

Castle enlivens a version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” which features some scat singing from James and some energetic drumming from Bradley.

“Peace Of Mind” is an original by one Mike James. The lyric is somewhat banal but the song is lifted by the lively and funky arrangement (by Zena and Geoff Castle) featuring Castle on Hammond and Allen’s exuberant r’n'b style sax.

Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” is lighter and more pop influenced but strangely moving.

“The Very Thought Of You” is the kind of standard jazz singer fare that has become over familiar. Despite some nice piano from Castle and fine playing from the rest of the band this track does little for me.

I’d rather hear something new and the balance is redressed by Zena’s original “It’s So Easy”. The lyrics don’t have much to say but the tune and arrangement are engaging enough.

Smoky Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You?” is a long time favourite of James .She gives the old Motown classic the full blues/gospel treatment with her full bodied vocals and Allen’s soaring sax underpinned by Castle’s rolling piano and Bradley’s rock solid drumming. Powerful, dramatic stuff and a great way to close an album.

All in all this is a fine debut from James. Her blues and soul influences distance her from the identikit hordes of female jazz singers and should stand her in good stead for a successful career. However, she is not just a blues belter but has the versatility to handle ballads and jazz standards convincingly. The quality of the musicians on this album is obviously a big help with Gascoyne particularly outstanding.

After this assured start it will be interesting to see how Zena James’ career progresses.

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