by Ian Mann
October 13, 2014
A show that combined excellent musicianship and literate, intelligent song writing and arranging with good humour and a pleasingly unpretentious approach.
Zoe Gilby Trio, The Hive Music and Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 11/10/2014.
Zoe Gilby is a singer who is gaining an increasingly impressive reputation for both for her recordings and for her consistently entertaining live performances. Gilby’s core working unit is her trio which features her husband, Andy Champion on double bass, plus the talented and versatile Mark Williams on guitar. Based in Newcastle these hard working North Eastern musicians are steadily acquiring a national profile as they play to appreciative audiences all over the country.
What marks Gilby out as different is the range of material that she chooses to cover. Yes, she dips into the Great American Songbook but tends to avoid the obvious choices, and in any event her arrangements are interesting and innovative. She also covers songs by non jazz writers, among them Kate Bush, Paul Simon and Tom Waits and again explores these in interesting ways. But for me the best thing about Gilby’s work is her original songs, often written in collaboration with Champion and Williams. Some of these, notably “The Midnight Bell” and “Red City” are quite exceptional and constitute set highlights even when performed alongside jazz standards and the kind of pop/rock material of world class songwriters like those mentioned above.
Gilby’s three albums to date “Now That I Am Real” (2007), “Looking Glass” (2010) and the excellent “Twelve Stories” (2013) all feature additional musicians but the core trio are more than capable of doing justice to the material. The superb musicianship of Champion and Williams plus Gilby’s expressive and technically adroit vocalising are allied to the singer’s vivacious and down to earth presenting style to create live performances that constitute a “show” or an “event”. Another pleasingly large audience at The Hive quickly “bought into” , and identified with, Gilby’s vision and they gave the trio a very warm reception.
Gilby has been a fairly regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages since I first saw her trio perform at Lichfield Real Ale Jazz & Blues Festival back in 2010. Earlier in 2014 I saw her again at the Wall2Wall jazz festival in Abergavenny and a favourable review of “Twelve Stories” also appears elsewhere on this site. In her turn Gilby is a particularly avid follower of my postings, always ready to send a re-tweet or share a link, she’s a great supporter of the UK jazz scene as a whole and as a performer that obvious enthusiasm for the music is highly infectious.
Inevitably tonight’s performance featured some of the same songs that I’d heard at Abergavenny, but given that tonight’s show was spread over two sets rather than a single festival slot it was substantially different overall and given the level of attendance and audience enthusiasm ultimately even more enjoyable. A glance into the Jazzmann archives also revealed that several songs from tonight’s set list had also appeared at Lichfield and it was great to hear some of these again.
The trio commenced with “Is It Me?”, a witty original bemoaning the state of the modern world. As on most of the songs heard tonight Gilby’s singing and lyrics received superb accompaniment from Champion and Williams with both instrumentalists also featuring extensively as soloists, their instrumental contributions enhancing every song.
I couldn’t recall hearing “Your Words” played before but apparently it was the first song to be co-written by Gilby and Champion. Gilby’s initial decision to compose her own material was inspired by the song writing of another jazz vocalist, the esteemed Jacqui Dankworth. For a husband and wife co-write the song has a surprisingly bitter lyric, this tale of romantic heartbreak containing the lyric “sitting in this crowded room with only my tears to keep me warm”.
The “Light Medley”, a merging of “I’m Beginning To See The Light” and “When Lights Are Low” is an item that has been in the trio’s repertoire for some time. Given a New Orleans style groove and featuring an effective scat episode it’s a good example of Gilby’s inventive and refreshing take on the standards repertoire.
Dave Brubeck’s “Travelin’ Blues” is a song about the vicissitudes of the life on the road of a touring jazz musician. Gilby’s version was inspired by Carmen McRae’s take on the song on a 1960s live album. With its witty lyrics the song is an excellent vehicle for Gilby and a suitable homage to McRae, one her great jazz vocal heroines.
Another substantial influence on Gilby, particularly with regard to her song writing, is the author Patrick Hamilton (1904-62). Hamilton’s 1930s novel “Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky” inspired “The Midnight Bell”, a song with a gorgeous melody and evocative, poetic lyrics. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, something evidenced by the rapturous reception it enjoyed here. If there was any justice in the world this song would become a massive hit and a modern day standard.
Bassist Champion also leads his own “progressive jazz” quintet ACV and plays alongside guitarist Chris Sharkey and drummer Joost Hendricx in the avant jazz power trio Shiver. He’s also worked as a sideman with the great saxophonist Bob Mintzer (of Yellowjackets fame). It was Mintzer who inspired the arrangement of “Time After Time”, a song most closely in a jazz context with trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker. A staple of the trio’s set the song always contains an improvised vocal passage where Gilby acknowledges her immediate surroundings, here referencing the size and enthusiasm of the audience, the Shrewsbury biscuits the band enjoyed in the green room and the prospect of beer and curry after the show! Plus the inevitable commercial for her CDs of course. Great fun.
The original song “In It Together” was mercifully nothing to do with David Cameron but instead a love song that compared a relationship with the chapters of a book, again evidence of Gilby’s literary leanings.
The Juan Tizol / Duke Ellington composition “Caravan” featured Champion using the body of his double bass as percussion on a duo intro with Gilby (“the old tippy tap” as he disparagingly referred to it). Nonetheless this was a highly effective arrangement of the old classic with Williams’ guitar solo exhibiting a distinct North African / Middle Eastern influence and with Gilby scatting joyously.
Williams’ playing took a more blues inflected turn on the last number of the first set. The Leiber and Stoller song “Some Cats Know” was first performed by Peggy Lee on her album “Mirrors”. Gilby had similar fun with the lascivious lyrics as the first half concluded with a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
Gilby and Champion regularly perform gigs as a vocal and bass duo. Set two began in this format with an effective rendition of the Paul Simon song “Graceland”.
Williams then returned to the stage for a particularly engaging take on “That Old Black Magic”, played at an unusually fast tempo with stand out instrumental solos firstly from the guitarist, then from Champion, playfully wigging out on bowed bass. In another twist the piece slowed to a crawl in the middle, with Gilby singing in almost impossibly low register as the trio highlighted the contrasts between the various sections.
Contrasts also distinguished the original song “Find A Secret”, the dark lyrics (inspired by the TV series “Breaking Bad”) juxtaposed against a breezy, bouncy tune that highlighted Williams’ fluency and lightness of touch.
Gilby and Champion were lucky enough to get tickets to see one of the shows at Kate Bush’s recent London residency. Another touchstone for Gilby, Bush’s song “In The Warm Room” has been in the Geordie singer’s repertoire for some time. Played here in a duo with Williams this was an extraordinary performance as Gilby brought Bush’s sensual lyrics to life.
Next came a return to the standards songbook with “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”, given an unusual rumba treatment and featuring characteristically excellent instrumental solos from both Williams and Champion.
A version of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” proved to be a technical challenge for the singer as Gilby negotiated the evocative tongue twisting lyrics and complex scat passages. I later asked Gilby if the lyrics were hers but no, and she wasn’t sure exactly where this piece of vocalese came from. We both surmised that it may have been Jon Hendricks, but neither of us knew for sure. Also I suspect that this is a tune that may have acquired more than one of set of words. If anybody out there can enlighten us do please leave a comment.
A haunting version of Leon Russell’s ballad “A Song For You” was delivered in an arrangement for voice, arco bass and guitar. Another stunning trio performance of great beauty.
Gilby harbours a particular fondness for the wickedly witty songs of David Frishberg. Perhaps the best known of these is “Peel Me A Grape” thanks to the version by Diana Krall. Gilby has tackled “Grape” but now prefers the even more amusing “Forget About Living”, a paean to the simple pleasures of just having fun and ignoring the “experts” and doom mongers.
Champion’s prog rock past, something reflected in the music of ACV, was doubtless behind the trio’s choice to cover the song parents, originally written recorded in the early 70s by Welsh hard rock band Budgie. It’s actually a very beautiful piece of work and very different from much of the rest of Budgie’s output. Gilby and the trio have made it their own with a kind of bossa nova arrangement that has won the approval of former Budgie drummer Ray Phillips. I suspect that most of the Hive audience had never heard the original, or indeed even have heard of Budgie, but they loved this. The choice of such obscure but rich material to cover is something else that sets Gilby apart from the raft of run of the mill identikit jazz singers.
As ever the trio closed with “Red City”, a vivid musical and lyrical portrait of the sights and sounds of Marrakesh, the city where Gilby and Champion spent their honeymoon. Evocative lyrics combined with equally evocative music as both Champion and Williams conjured Moorish style sounds from their respective instruments. This is a stand out original song which is deservedly a major part of any Zoe Gilby concert. The ecstatic audience reaction to the piece said it all and the trio returned to encore with a 12 bar blues arrangement of the song “Centre Piece”, culminating in a series of Led Zep style voice and guitar exchanges between Gilby and Williams, great fun and something that looked likely to be extended until the singer suddenly remembered that a curry was calling.
Tonight was Zoe Gilby’s first time in Shrewsbury but she and the trio made a lot of new friends and I suspect that she may well be welcomed back at some time in the future. This was a show that combined excellent musicianship and literate, intelligent song writing and arranging with good humour and a pleasingly unpretentious approach. Audiences can identify with Gilby and her popularity can only continue to increase.
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