Norwich Arts Centre
February 10, 2009
A scat duet featuring saxophonist Gilad Atzmon alongside newcomer Sarah Gillespie may not have been what the audience expected, but the enthusiasm and joy of the artists brought a warm and appreciative response from the crowd. The occasion was Sarah Gillespie's first headlining gig in Norwich, on the day following the British release of her debut album Stalking Juliet (Egea, 2009). On the evidence of this performance, Gillespie has the potential to become a major new singer and songwriter, bringing an idiosyncratic approach to jazz vocals and performance.
Although other musicians were on hand, Gillespie and Atzmon were the stars of this performance. The saxophonist was a charismatic presence on stage, joking and grimacing throughout the set, but the young singer was more than a match with her own jokes and asides, and the two clearly enjoyed trading off each other. The rhythm section of Ben Bastin on double bass and Joshua Blackmore on drums didn't engage in similar musical conversations, but their playing was central to the performance, and both responded effectively to the changing styles and tempos the songs demanded.
Sarah Gillespie is one of the most individual yet recognizable voices to emerge in some time. At the top of her range she often used a vibrato reminiscent of Kate Bush, while at the lower end her voice was closer to that of a blues shouter, demonstrated to great effect on "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." In between she veered from smoky and seductive to light and playful, with hints of country and cabaret, and on occasion her voice clearly displayed her English origins. This combination of styles and sounds could easily appear forced, as change for change's sake, but Gillespie never fell into that trap. Her singing, without exception, matched the mood and the arrangement of each song, bringing to full realization the atmosphere established by her supporting musicians. She played acoustic guitar throughout the set, showing some stylish finger-style picking, another unusual aspect of her persona as a jazz performer.
Atzmon almost matched Gillespie in his flexibility. While his scat singing was limited to a cover of "All of Me," he played throughout the set, moving from accordion and harmonica (simultaneously on one or two numbers) through clarinet and soprano sax, eventually picking up his tenor sax for the final part of the evening to add a throaty blast to "Malicious Simone" before reverting to clarinet for the encore, "Sleep Talking."
Gillespie's songwriting is another of her strengths. With the exception of two covers, she wrote all of the songs in the setfrom the mournful "Million Moons," featuring Atzmon's beautiful accordion playing, to the up-tempo shuffle of "How the Mighty Fall." The infectious riffs and lead lines provided by Atzmon helped assure that the songs had a familiarity about them, even though most in the audience were no doubt hearing them for the first time. The crystalline quality of the venue's sound also meant that the lyrics could be heard clearly, giving the crowd the chance to enjoy the imagery and ponder the underlying meanings.
This was not a concert that fitted neatly into the "jazz vocal" categorybut the music and the performance had at its heart a feel and a sensibility that certainly fell within common understandings of jazz. Sarah Gillespie's songs and voice brought something new and original to an old and established genre.