The London Blues of Zoë Schwarz
The American music genres blues and jazz are the subatomic particles of every note played since their commission to media in the early part of the last century. While one did not beget the other, were this a Venn diagram, there would exist an overlapping of blues and jazz in that place behind the roadhouse on an unfiltered whiskey Friday night - all urgent zippers and hiked skirts against the fence.
It is the blues that gives carnality to jazz and it is this characteristic currently being mined by contemporary artists like Lawrence Lebo and husband, bassist Denny Croy on their Don't Call Me Larry trilogy on the West Coast and now by vocalist Zoe Schwarz and guitarist Rob Koral on the other side of the pond. Schwarz is a proper English girl with a real thing for the blues (and jazz) and her husband Koral has the six-string chops to support such a thing. Two recent recordings, Celebration and Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion reveal a broad and deep talent in the vernacular.
Zoë Schwarz and Bob Koral
Few performance formats can illuminate a talent and facility like the duet. Schwarz and Koral create a certain edgy intimacy on Celebration that is both very contemporary and quite traditional at the same time. Over the course of 16 jazz standards, blues and originals, the pair spin out a well-balanced musical vision, one that is well-conceived and performed. When all of these elements coalesce, exceptional music is made. Heavy on the jazz standards (a swinging "Sitting On Top Of The World" being the sole "blues") Celebration is a jazz vocal lesson.
Jazz needs its standards to remain grounded in where it came from, but also as a vehicle with original compositions to track where it is going. The opening standards "Cry Me A River" and Billie Holiday's sublime "Don't Explain" are preformed simply, even nakedly, exposed. Schwarz's voice balances between angry resignation and despair as is necessary for the lyrics. The inclusion of a Holiday tune is no mistake as Schwarz's delivery bears the influence of that great singer. But, Schwarz is no mere imitator of Holiday, only an attentive student with her eye (and ear) on something different, newer, and more revelatory.
Koral proves a grand accompanist for Schwarz. His guitar style is well informed and not plagued by the need to show off every technical arrow that obviously exists in his musical quiver. On "When I Grow To Old To Dream," Koral begins with a single-note choral that is melancholy and virtuosic without being showy. He puts that 1920s-30s vibe on the vocal section of the piece, a vibe he extends through the Louis Jordan classic "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby." The has a great walking-bass facility that makes his support that much more valuable convincing. He co-composes "Let's Explain" with Schwarz, a clever bookend to Holiday's "Don't Explain," that is about Holiday. Where this could often go very wrong, Schwarz and Koral make it all look easy on this breezy, listenable collection.
Zoë Schwarz Blues Commotion
Zoë Schwarz Blues Commotion
Where Celebration was heavy with jazz standards, Zoë Schwarz Blues Commotion is crammed full of the blues: slow blues, jump blues, rhythm and blues, all delivered with an expert flair while still possessing that wild hair necessary for true authenticity as opposed to wannabe imitation. Rob Koral returns as axe-protector and is joined by pianist Gareth Williams, bassist, Steve Thompson and drummer Paul Robinson, making this festive quintet one swinging unit. And Zoë Schwarz? She bares her Holiday influences proudly, summoning all of the angst and heartache of that past singer.
Where Celebration was a well-behaved, if covert, affair, Blue Commotion is a torrid romance brimming with the full- throated and hot-blooded pathos one would hope for in a blues recording. Schwarz opens with Leroy Carr's iconic "Blues Before Sunrise," one of the genre's many emotional, mash-up liebestods where Schwarz almost purrs 100-proof: "I love my baby, but my baby, he won't...I'm gonna buy me a .45 and put my baby down in his grave." Schwarz follows this with a breezy, jazzy- blues reading of "No Good Man," Koral providing filigree.
The up-tempo blues like Ray Charles' "Ain't That Fine" and the original "Too Darn Rich To Be Happy" swing relentlessly and could serve as grand concert centers. Where Schawz makes her most convincing statement is on Willie Dixon's "I Can't Quit You Baby." Where Led Zeppelin overtones are impossible to avoid, Schwarz and Koral still produce a convincing, scaled-down presentation, where Scharz takes all that is good from Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday and makes it uniquely her own.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Cry Me A River; Don't Explain; Let's Fall In Love; My Funny Valentine; When I Grow Too Old To Dream; Let's Explain; Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby; Boulevard Of Broken Dreams; The Man I Love; You Don't Learn That In School; Until The Real Thing Comes Along; Careless Love; Baby Baby All The Time; That Old Feeling; Empty Rooms; Sitting On Top Of The World.
Personnel: Zoë Schwarz: vocals; Bob Koral: guitars.
Zoë Schwarz Blues Commotion
Tracks: Blues Before Sunrise; No Good Man; Ain't That Fine; Going Down Slow; Since I Fell For You; I Can't Quite You Babe; If I Didn't Care; She Was Just A Name; Too Darn Rich To Be Happy; He's Funny That Way; Stormy Blues; I'm Ready; Sitting On Top Of The World.
Personnel: Zoë Schwarz: vocals; Rob Koral : guitar; Gareth Williams: piano; Steve Thompson: double bass; Paul Robinson: drums.