by Ian Mann
June 04, 2021
Ian Mann looks at singer & lyricist Zoe Gilby's 'vocalese' adaptations of tunes by the American trumpeter Tom Harrell. He also examines her EP of voice & double bass duets, recorded with Andy Champion
(Evening Play Records EPR4)
Zoe Gilby – vocals, Noel Dennis – trumpet, flugelhorn, Mark Williams – guitar, Andy Champion – double bass, Russ Morgan – drums
Despite the ongoing ravages of the Covid pandemic 2021 is turning out to be quite a year for the Tyneside vocalist, lyricist and songwriter Zoe Gilby.
“Aurora” represents her second album release of the year, following on from the acclaimed “Living In Shadows”, which appeared in January.
A band name as well as an album title “Living In Shadows” was the début release from a new project co-led by Gilby and her bassist husband Andy Champion. It was an album that combined the couple’s jazz sensibilities with elements of rock and electronica and also provided a showcase for their songwriting capabilities.
Although clearly aimed at a wider audience the “Living In Shadows” album was warmly received by the specialist jazz press and my own review of the album can be read here;
“Aurora” is more obviously a jazz recording and it represents Gilby’s fourth full length album under her own name, following in the wake of “Now That I Am Real” (2007), “Looking Glass” (2010) and the exceptional “Twelve Stories”(2014), the album that really put Gilby on the map and earned her a national reputation. Review here;
The quality of her recordings, allied to her exciting and personable live performances resulted in her winning the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Vocalist in 2019.
Hitherto Gilby’s albums have featured a mix of high quality original songs and imaginative arrangements of often unfamiliar material from both the jazz and rock canons. Gilby is an adventurous writer and performer who is far removed from the identikit ‘Great American Songbook’ standards singer.
“Aurora” introduces a new project and sees Gilby adding her own lyrics to a selection of tunes written by the American trumpeter and composer Tom Harrell. She was introduced to Harrell’s music by trumpeter Noel Dennis, who appears on Gilby’s “Twelve Stories” album.
Gilby’s album liner notes take up the tale;
“I was introduced to the music of Tom Harrell by my dear friend and musician Noel Dennis. I was soon inspired to put lyrics to these wonderful melodies, that already felt so natural for a vocalist to get their teeth into. I went to work on writing these lyrical interpretations, my gateway to emulating the mood and sentiment of these nine tracks. It’s been a fascinating path, curating a narrative for these compositions and vocally stepping inside this enchanting music.”
The Aurora project has won the approval of Harrell and his wife Angela and the album was actually recorded in January 2020, shortly before the pandemic began to take hold in the UK. The quintet line up features Noel Dennis on trumpet and flugel, essentially fulfilling the Harrell role, plus Andy Champion on double bass, Mark Williams on guitar and Russ Morgan at the drums, all long term associates. Champion also acts as producer, working alongside an engineering team of Adam Sinclair, Teddy Dennis and Chris Sharkey.
As has become customary in the jazz world the titles of these ‘vocalese’ versions of Harrell’s tunes have been changed for copyright reasons, the new names based upon the original title and often reflecting a lyricist’s love of word play.
During the course of my review I will endeavour to relay the title of the Harrell originals as best I can, a process helped by my getting a sneak preview of some of this material when the trio of Gilby, Champion and Williams performed three of the pieces as part of their livestream set from the 2020 online Wall2Wall Jazz Festival filmed in Abergavenny. Review here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/zoe-gilby-trio-wall2wall-virtual-jazz-festival-2020-abergavenny
The album commences with “Leap to the Limelight”, Gilby’s lyrical interpretation of the Harrell tune “Little Dancer”. Gilby’s words remain true to the spirit of the original title and are a paean to the joys of becoming lost in live performance, in this case dance, and specifically ballet. The lyrics fit the cadences of the tune perfectly and in addition to Gilby’s assured vocal delivery there are also fluent instrumental solos from Williams on guitar and Dennis on (I think) flugel.
Harrell’s tune “Buffalo Wings” becomes “The All Night Diner”, an authentically bluesy depiction of a seedy American diner. On her previous albums, and particularly “Twelve Stories”, Gilby has revealed her ability to pen evocative lyrics with a strong narrative or story telling quality. This is something that she does expertly here, channelling the spirits of Tom Waits and Suzanne Vega and incorporating the original title into the lyric. Again Dennis, on trumpet, and Williams on guitar shine instrumentally, while Champion and Morgan provide suitably propulsive rhythmic support.
“Scene”, one of the pieces performed at Abergavenny, becomes the ballad “Your Dear Heart, My Dear Heart”. The intimacy of the piece made it an ideal choice for the trio format, although the arrangement here expands upon that with the addition of Morgan’s brushed drums and the velvety fluency of Dennis on flugel. Once again Gilby subtly includes the original title in the lyric, delivering her words with a cool and well enunciated elegance.
Morgan’s brushed drums usher in the lively, bebop influenced “Forget the Past”, originally titled “April Mist”, with its lyrical theme of time passing and of the need to live in the moment. Dennis solos on muted trumpet, as Williams, Champion and Morgan provide buoyant but understated rhythmic impetus. Champion steps out of the shadows with a brief, but virtuosic, bass solo, while Morgan enjoys a series of colourful brushed drum breaks.
A delicate passage of unaccompanied guitar introduces “A Momentary Place of Peace”. The addition of voice, bass and drums introduces a gentle bossa nova feel, with Gilby’s words transporting the listener to the shores of Brazil with their oceanic imagery. Harrell’s original title was “Sail Away”, a phrase that forms the first line of the lyric. Dennis’ flugel skirts around the bossa beat before embarking on a lyrical solo, followed by the ever eloquent Williams on guitar.
“Angela”, Harrell’s dedication to his wife, becomes the urgent, racing “What’s New”, with Gilby’s rapid fire vocal matched by fiery solos from Dennis on trumpet and Williams on guitar, the latter’s contribution displaying a distinct rock influence. Behind them Champion and Morgan deliver a formidable rhythmic drive, with the drummer producing his most powerful playing of the set.
“Ebb & Flow”, originally titled “The Water’s Edge”, is more reflective in feel, with Gilby’s aquatically themed lyrics augmented by an extended scat vocal episode. The instrumental honours go to Dennis with an expansive trumpet solo and Champion with a melodic and highly dexterous excursion on double bass.
Harrell’s ballad “Moon Alley” becomes “Shadowed in Solitude”, which mixes wispy atmospherics with a gentle, bossa style groove and an evocative lyric. The performance includes a poignant muted trumpet / double bass duet, a liquid guitar solo from Williams and a final trumpet flourish from Dennis.
The album concludes with “Celestial Delight”, Gilby’s adaptation of the Harrell composition “Aurora”, which provides the album title. Gilby’s lyrics deploy suitably spacey imagery and there’s also a rousing passage featuring soaring wordless vocals. Dennis delivers one of his most powerful trumpet solos of the set, highly fluent and technically adept. The excellent Williams follows with a solo that again borrows from rock. Williams is a supremely versatile guitarist who also leads his own trio, but who has been a stalwart of Gilby’s bands for many years. He also contributed to the songwriting process on “Twelve Stories” and “Living In Shadows”, alongside Gilby and Champion.
“Aurora” represents another impressive offering from Gilby and her excellent quintet. Her voice and lyrics fit Harrell’s melodies perfectly and it sounds perfectly natural and organic; other ‘vocalese’ adaptations of existing instrumental pieces can sometimes sound rather forced.
“His trumpet melodies are so melodic, they are extremely singable and ‘vocal-friendly’, even though the rest of the music is very complex”, Gilby has explained.
The fact that “Aurora” works so well is thanks both to the quality of Harrell’s original writing and the care and skill that Gilby has displayed with her own contribution. Her lyrics are intelligent, incisive and poetic and carefully crafted to fit each individual tune. She also possesses the vocal ability to do her words justice and she receives superb support from a highly capable band, who excel both individually and collectively.
In addition to her regular solo work Gilby’s other projects include Pannonica her own take on the “Carmen McRae Sings Monk” album, the title of the project inspired by the ‘Jazz Baroness’, Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the friend and patron of Thelonious Monk and his fellow bebop pioneers. Pannonica features Gilby and Champion alongside pianist Paul Edis and drummer Richard Brown. Whether this project will eventually come to be recorded remains to be seen.
I’m grateful to Zoe for sending me a copy of the “Aurora” album for review. She was also kind enough to include a copy of the five track EP “Voice & Bass”, a series of vocal and double bass duets recorded by Gilby and Champion in 2018. The couple have regularly performed gigs as a duo and this release came about as a direct result of that.
The EP features intimate and adventurous arrangements of a typically eclectic selection of material chosen from both the jazz and rock worlds. The jazz material includes the Gershwins’ “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, Monk’s “Straight No Chaser”, with lyrics by Sally Swisher, and the Victor Young / Jack Elliott standard “Weaver of Dreams”.
Even more interesting are stunning versions of “Kashka From Baghdad” by Kate Bush and Nick Drake’s “River Man”. I remember hearing the latter played on Late Junction some time during 2020 and sounding absolutely brilliant in that context. It was this that first alerted me to this particular project.
The five performances on the EP highlight Gilby’s skills as an interpreter of songs and her technical prowess as a vocalist. Champion is the perfect foil, technically superb and totally on Gilby’s wavelength throughout. Their rapport is remarkable and the sparseness of the instrumentation only serves to add to the emotional impact of the songs and the performances. The Monk tune also allows Gilby the chance to showcase her scat vocal skills, and Champion the opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosity on the bass.
Both “Aurora” and “Voice & Bass” are highly recommended and are available via Gilby’s Bandcamp page;
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