by Ian Mann
March 07, 2022
The standard of the singing and playing was exceptional throughout with two well balanced sets featuring the trio’s characteristic mix of jazz standards, well chosen covers & excellent original songs.
Zoe Gilby Trio, Kidderminster Jazz Club, The Corn Exchange Room, Town Hall, Kidderminster, 03/03/2022.
Zoe Gilby – vocals, Andy Champion – double bass, Mark Williams – electric guitar
Vocalist, lyricist and songwriter Zoe Gilby has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages for over a decade.
I first heard her sing at the 2010 Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz & Blues Festival where she appeared in a trio format with both of tonight’s accompanists, her husband Andy Champion on double bass and Mark Williams, a bandleader in his own right, on guitar.
Gilby and her colleagues hail from Tyneside and were still relatively unknown at the time of that Lichfield appearance but a relentless gigging schedule, ranging from village halls to major festivals, and a series of high quality albums has since ensured that Gilby is now a singer with a national reputation. She has appeared regularly at the EFG London Jazz Festival and in 2019 her talents were recognised when she won the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Vocalist, receiving her prize at an awards ceremony in London.
The Jazzmann was at the same event, picking up the award for “Best Media”, and Zoe and I were delighted for each other, two ‘out of towners’ from very different parts of the country, each surprised and exhilarated to be receiving such acknowledgement for our work.
I have seen Gilby and her colleagues perform live many times over the years and have enjoyed every performance, and tonight was to be no exception. Occasionally the core trio is supplemented by a drummer, previously Richard Brown and currently John Bradford, but most of the shows I have seen have been in the trio format.
Gilby made her recording début in 2007 with the sassy “Now That I Am Real”, an album that saw her fronting an octet led by drummer Tony Faulkner which embraced something of a “mini big band feel”.
“Looking Glass” (2010) and the excellent “Twelve Stories” (2013) are more representative of her current work and introduce Gilby and Champion as a highly accomplished songwriting team, with Williams also contributing to the process on a regular basis. Gilby has never been an identikit ‘Songbook standards’ singer and as I’ve remarked on numerous previous occasions it’s the quality of the trio’s original songs that really makes them stand out from the crowd.
That’s not to say that Gilby doesn’t perform standards, she has a thorough love and knowledge and love of the ‘Songbook’ material and interprets it in a consistently imaginative and inventive manner, very much putting her own stamp on the material.
She is also a skilled interpreter of pop and rock material with an unfailing ability to search out a good song and again make it her own. Among the songwriters she has covered are Kate Bush, Paul Simon, Nick Cave, Nick Drake, Leon Russell and Tom Waits. OK, other jazz vocalists have dipped into the repertoires of such iconic songwriters, but only Gilby would tackle songs by the likes of Thin Lizzy, Pink Floyd and the veteran Welsh rock power trio Budgie.
There’s a brilliant version of the Budgie song “Parents” on the “Twelve Stories” album.
Album review here;
Appropriately the songs on “Twelve Stories” were chosen for their story telling and narrative qualities and there is always the sense of being taken on a musical journey at every Zoe Gilby gig, which will typically feature a mix of jazz standards, imaginative pop and rock covers and a number of high quality original songs, which are more than capable of holding their own alongside the ‘outside’ material. Indeed original songs such as “The Midnight Bell” and “Red City”, both from “Twelve Stories”, have established themselves as set highlights, although we were only to get the first named of these tonight.
Although Gilby admires such iconic jazz singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Peggy Lee her real vocal heroine is Carmen McRae and the trio kicked off tonight’s proceedings with “In Walked Bud”, from the hugely influential “Carmen Sings Monk” album from 1988. This was a piece that allowed Gilby to demonstrate her considerable scatting abilities as well as delivering the quick-fire, hipster-ish lyrics describing a bebop era jam session and name checking the jazz heroes of the time. Williams and Champion each delivered fluent instrumental solos as the evening got off to a lively start.
Gilby’s latest full length album release under her own name is “Aurora”, a highly accomplished set that sees her adding her own lyrics to a series of instrumental compositions written by the American trumpeter Tom Harrell. She was introduced to Harrell’s music by trumpeter Noel Dennis, who appears on Gilby’s “Twelve Stories” album, with Champion later suggesting that she write lyrics to accompany Harrell’s tunes.
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 album features a quintet line up with Gilby, Champion and Williams joined by drummer Russ Morgan, with Dennis on trumpet and flugelhorn, essentially filling the Tom Harrell role. Released in the summer of 2021 the album is reviewed here;
In a sense “Aurora” is Gilby’s own “McRae Sings Monk” album and as with that recording the titles of the original instrumental pieces have all had to be changed for copyright reasons. Thus in Gilby’s hands Harrell’s “Moon Alley” becomes “Shadowed in Solitude”, which was delivered here by Gilby in the style of a contemporary jazz ballad, her vocals and her poetic lyrical gift sometimes recalling the great Norma Winstone. The piece was ushered in by Williams’ atmospheric, Bill Frisell like solo guitar intro and also featured a beautifully melodic double bass solo from Champion, who then handed over seamlessly to the guitarist for a more conventional jazz solo.
The first original composition of the evening was “In It Together” from the “Twelve Stories” album, a song with the feel of a jazz standard with Williams the featured instrumental soloist. The lyrics compared a relationship with the chapters of a book, evidence of Gilby’s love of literature, of which more later. Gilby informed us that she was down to her last two copies of this excellent album. At least one was sold on the night. Let’s hope she’s able to arrange a second pressing, this is music that deserves to be ‘out there’ and widely heard.
The jazz standard “Time After Time” was ’ written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1947. Gilby’s version was inspired by Chet Baker’s recording of the song and featured an adventurous odd meter arrangement, with both Williams and Champion allowed the space to express themselves instrumentally. Gilby habitually uses the closing section of this song to sing her own improvised lyrics, in this case praising Kidderminster Town Hall as a venue, musing about the technicalities of microphones and delivering the obligatory CD commercial.
Remaining with the standards repertoire Gilby tackled “Secret Love” in the styles of both the sweet and wholesome Doris Day and the “raunched up” Carmen McRae. The audience loved it.
The first set concluded with a second item from the “Aurora” album with Harrell’s composition “Sail Away” becoming the song “A Momentary Place of Peace”. Introduced by a passage of unaccompanied guitar the piece was given a subtle Brazilian flavouring, with Gilby’s lyrics evoking the idea of escape and the kind of oceanic imagery inherent in Harrell’s original title.
Set two began with trio’s brilliant interpretation of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”, a song that has gained a new lease of life after being selected as the theme tune for the acclaimed TV series “Peaky Blinders”. A suitably ominous sounding double bass intro from Champion set the tone with Williams making subtle use of his guitar effects to evoke a suitably eerie and sinister atmosphere. With Champion making use of the body of the double bass as auxiliary percussion Gilby claimed the song as her own with an authoritative rendition of Cave’s lyrics. It’s a song that has been in the trio’s repertoire for some time and they more than did it justice.
Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” was famously a hit for The Carpenters but Gilby takes her inspiration from Carmen McRae’s version. It’s a song that she sung at her late father’s funeral in 2010 and she describes every subsequent performance as being “still an emotional experience”.
Tonight’s rendition featured Gilby’s emotive vocals alongside the low register sounds Champion’s bowed bass and Williams’ guitar atmospherics.
A return to the “Aurora” repertoire for Harrell’s “Little Dancer”, reborn as “Leap to the Limelight”, a sprightly paean to the art of uninhibited dancing and a piece with a genuine jazz / swing feel and a typically arresting Harrell melody. Gilby’s joyous vocal was augmented by suitably lithe solos from both instrumentalists.
Gilby’s version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “No More Blues” was delivered with Gilby singing Jon Hendricks’ English language lyric, her version inspired by the recording by the Italian vocalist Roberta Gambarini.
From the “Aurora” album came “Ebb and Flow”, originally Harrell’s composition “The Water’s Edge”. Gilby’s lyrics evoked aquatic imagery that saw water as being cast as both beautiful and dangerous. The performance also included a scat vocal episode alongside the instrumental solos. Towards the close of the song Gilby embraced extended vocal techniques as she approximated the sound of dripping water.
The original song “The Midnight Bell” is inspired by the writing of the author Patrick Hamilton (1904-62) and particularly his trilogy “20,000 Streets Under The Sky”. Named for Hamilton’s fictitious 1930s London pub the song’s lyrics evoked the atmosphere of the era, while the music deployed a gorgeous and memorable melody to help generate a bluesy, after hours feel, with Williams the featured instrumental soloist. This song is one of my favourites in the Gilby repertoire and even inspired me to buy and read the Hamilton trilogy, plus two more of his novels, “Hangover Square” and “The Slaves of Solitude”. They are great books and I can thoroughly endorse Zoe’s recommendation.
The standard “Centrepiece” closed the show and gave Gilby a final chance to display her impressive scatting technique as she went toe to toe with the instrumentalists, with Champion delivering a virtuoso double bass solo, arguably his best of the night.
The piece ended with a Led Zeppelin style series of voice and guitar exchanges as Gilby and Williams echoed Page and Plant. The trio’s willingness to borrow from the world of rock is perhaps not so surprising when one reflects on Champion’s prog / metal past and his leadership of the highly acclaimed prog/jazz quintet ACV, whose albums “Fail In Wood” and “Busk” are reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Gilby, Champion and Williams are also part of the band Living in Shadows, which explores Gilby and Champion’s interest in rock music and electronica and focusses exclusively on their original writing. My review of this band’s début album can be found here;
The deserved encore was a vocal version of Wes Montgomery’s “West Coat Blues”, inspired by the recording by the late Nancy Wilson (1937-2018), an authentically bluesy rendition featuring instrumental solos from Williams and Champion plus a further improvised vocal episode from Gilby that saw her praising the venue, the promoters and her band mates.
This was another excellent performance from Gilby and the trio. The singer presented the show with her usual Geordie charm and had the audience in the palm of her hand. The standard of the singing and playing was exceptional throughout and the two sets were well balanced with the trio’s characteristic mix of jazz standards, well chosen covers and excellent original songs. It’s a winning combination and this was a performance that will have won the personable Gilby many more friends.
The trio were particularly enamoured by the acoustics of the Corn Exchange Room. Sound engineer John, who had done an excellent job, had actually recorded the band and played some of it back for them and they were clearly delighted with what they heard. I was ear wigging and it has to be said that it did sound pretty damn good.
I’ve covered so many of their shows that I regard Zoe, Andy and Mark as personal friends and it was good to meet up with them again after so long, and, of course to hear them sing and play. And there’s also that special bond we feel as Parliamentary Jazz Award winners. In fact the last time that I saw Zoe and Andy would have been at the awards ceremony in 2019.
An excellent evening of music then, and doubtless many of Gilby’s new fans will be there again when she plays the Bonded Warehouse venue in nearby Stourbridge on Friday 10th June 2022. Visit http://www.jazzbw.org.uk for details.
Gilby is a hard working musician who gigs constantly. Details of all her live shows can be found at her own website http://www.zoegilby.co.uk
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