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Dig A Little Deeper: Songs From The Small Hours

Ian Patterson By

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The title of the debut recording from guitarist Mick Stuart's quintet Dig A Little Deeper captures pretty well the mood of the music—a late night vibe of sultry vocal jazz with brushes and earthy bass setting the mood. Singer Riona Hartman's pure-toned voice holds center stage on eleven original compositions that are notable for their simple narrative flow. Had the order of the songs been rearranged this could almost have been a song cycle tracing the various stages of love, from the pain of longing to the pain of despair and all points in between. The music draws inspiration from jazz and folk balladry in equal measure with occasional hints of swaying Latin rhythms.

There's a little samba in the swaying rhythms of "I Cannot Help Myself," accentuated by Dave McCune's quietly percolating percussion and pianist Johnny Taylor's light touch. Stuart's breezy solo here is succinct and in the main he adopts the role of accompanist and rhythm guitarist throughout the set, adding subtle embellishments where the mood dictates. Soloing plays second fiddle in general, though Taylor shines on "Lifeline"—injecting pace into an otherwise flat-footed number—and really stretches out with a dancing solo on the finger-snapping "Dead and Gone," buoyed by Dan Callaghan's fast walking bass and drummer Tommy Gray's skipping beat.

Greater intimacy colors the lovely "Your Wish is my Command." Gentle acoustic guitar accompanies Hartman on this affecting slower number, which evokes the country balladry of singer/guitarist Neil Young. Hartman's emotive delivery on "Cold" echoes early Joni Mitchell, though in general her delivery and Stuart's storytelling lyrics perhaps owe more to singer Beca Stevens. Walking bass and Hartman's bluesy vocals color "Last Chance Saloon," which features a short solo from Stuart that's over almost before it's started.

Given that these are some of the finest jazz musicians in Ireland, the rationing of solos seems odd. There's a lot to be said for brevity but a little more free-wheeling might have brought some of the less memorable material to life, particularly "You Push I Pull" and "In My Corner," which lack that bit of spark necessary to ever really ignite. The elegant "When I Go" harks back to the era of the jazz standard; a shift in tempo briefly releases Taylor but he's soon reined in as Hartman reappears on the head.

"Lost" begins introspectively, with Hartman's plaintive vocals lent minimal accompaniment. The gentle pulse quickens with Taylor's teasingly brief intervention, but just when the drums pick up and the song seems about to venture somewhere interesting it turns tail and returns to port. The stripped down guitar and vocal duet "Boy Oh Boy" is one of the more distinctive tunes and closes the set on an intimate note.

No doubt in a live setting Stuart's quintet takes greater liberties with the music but there's an overriding feeling that everyone is holding back. A little more guile with the lyrics might also have transformed what are mostly quite memorable melodies into something more potent. When most who ply vocal jazz these days are content to simply rehash standards Stuart deserves credit for instead following his muse. This quintet has all the elements necessary to produce something more essential but it still needs to dig a little deeper.

Track Listing: I Cannot Help Myself; Lifeline; Dead and Gone; Your Wish is my Command; Cold; Last Chance Saloon; You Push I Pull; In my Corner; When I Go; Lost; Boy Oh Boy.

Personnel: Riona Hartman: vocals; Mick Stuart: guitar; Johnny Taylor: piano; Dan Callaghan: double bass; Tommy Gray: drums; Dave McCune: percussion (1).

Title: Songs From The Small Hours | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Self Produced

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