British singer Zoe Schwarz is a blues singer in the same way that the late Gene Harris
was a blues pianist. Harris often referred to himself as a "blues player with jazz chops." Even his jazziest performances are steeped in the vernacular. For an example, see his famous performance
from Ray Brown's Bam Bam Bam
(Concord, 1988). Schwarz can belt the blues out with the best of them, but she is also a more than competent jazz singer, one who has used the blues to inform her performance and infuse her delivery in the very same way Harris did with his jazz recitals.
A considerable amount of Schwarz's oeuvre is down-and-dirty blues. She did release a fine standards recording with guitarist/husband Bob Koral entitled Celebration
(33 Records, 2009) that was quite fetching, and to which the present Slow Burn
is a logical followup. Schwarz returns to this recital in the close space of a trio, again in the company of Koral and with the addition of tenor saxophonist Ian Ellis Schwarz provides a more homogenous mix of blues and standards (with some originals thrown in) on Slow Burn
, mixing things up nicely. The addition of Ellis is inspired, his tenor raspy when necessary and sweet-tone when demanded, particularly on the ballads.
The spirit of Billie Holiday
is in ample evidence, with "The Meaning of the Blues," "I Cover The Water Front" and "Willow Weep for Me" serving as homage to the singer. Schwarz honors Holiday not with a mere imitation, but an honest acknowledgement of Holiday's uniquely odd phrasing and approach around the beat. Also present is Nina Simone
, in whose material Schwarz excels with her own approach. "The Blues are A-brewin,'" "Blues for Mama" and "Sinner's Prayer" all seethe with Simone's own slow burn with Schwarz's own fine port tone added. Koral's expert, more-is-less approach carefully paces the pieces, be they the lowdown blues of Jack Bruce's "We're Going Wrong" or the bouncy novelty of the guitarist's original, "Bye Bye Baby See You When I Get Home."
Musical Nirvana is reached on "Angel Eyes" and "Detour Ahead." On the former, Koral sets up an uncharacteristic rhythm, establishing a nervous undertow to this classic and dark ballad, allowing Schwarz free rein in singing. On the latter, the trio's efforts are fully realized, with Koral's fractured chords, Ellis' tentative yet confident obbligato and, finally Schwarz, channeling both Holiday and even pianist Bill Evans
on an impressionistic performance of this strangely durable and compelling standard. It is in this performance that the trio's efforts and our expectations are fully rewarded.