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Not too many years ago it seemed that the art of the male jazz vocalist was heading in the same direction as black and white televisions and 8-track cartridges. One or two notable voices kept the flame alive, but new, young, vocal talent wasn't emerging. Then it started: a slow process, but new male singers began to appear. In the UK the most obvious example of the new breed is the million-selling Jamie Cullum. Anthony Strong's performance on Stepping Out suggests that there's a contender for Cullum's crown.
Singer, songwriter and pianist Strong already had a wealth of experience before recording Stepping Out, his third release after the self-produced Guaranteed! (2009) and the 5 song EP Delovely (Guaranteed Records, 2011). He's been a session pianist and he's supported stars including B.B. King. He also spent a year playing Jerry Lee Lewis in a West End production of Million Dollar Quartet. Now signed to French label Naïve (Adele's record company), Strong's career is rapidly gaining momentum.
On Stepping Out Strong mixes his own songs (with lyrics by Guy Mathers) and Songbook standards. He keeps things short and swift14 songs in 48 minutes. A proper album, in other words. It's a smart move for two reasons: nothing gets bogged down in over-extended solos and every single tune is a radio-friendly 4 minutes 16 seconds or less. The standards are almost universally familiar, but Strong gives them enough of a shake-up to keep things fresh. His own songs; "Change My Ways" "Earlybird," "Learning To Unlove You" and "Falling In Love"; are immediately impressive.
In another smart move, Strong has surrounded himself with some of the UK's finest straight-ahead playersmusicians who know how to swing, how to lay back and how to back a singer in a sympathetic way. The core rhythm section playersbassists Tom Farmer and Calum Gourlay, drummers Sebastian De Krom and Matt Skeltonare superb throughout.
The up-tempo swingers are the album's most enjoyable numbers. Strong's timing and technique are exceptional, his commitment is clear. He's not a singer who tears at the heartstrings like Kurt Elling or Ian Shaw might do. He's at the more escapist end of the spectrum, his voice maintaining its welcoming, relaxed, vibe whether he's performing a hard-driving song such as "Change My Ways" or a ballad like the excellent "My Foolish Heart." The exception is "Learning To Unlove You," a convincing and passionate solo performance.
The album credits name check the company that made Strong's suit (Without Prejudice, for the fashion-conscious). Such a credit may seem rather superfluous, but it's a sign that everything about his image is being taken seriously and that's no bad thing. Stepping Out is slick, engaging and likeableif Strong was an English football team he'd be ready for the Premier League.
Track Listing: Too Darn Hot; Change My Ways; Luck Be A Lady; Stepping Out With My Baby; L-O-V-E; Falling In Love; Someone Knows; My Foolish Heart; My Ship; Witchcraft; When I Fall In Love; Overjoyed; Earlybird; Learning To Unlove You.
Personnel: Anthony Strong: vocals, piano; Quentin Collins: trumpet; Alistair White: trombone; Alex Garnett: alto saxophone; Brandon Allen: tenor saxophone; Chris Allard; guitar; Tom Farmer: bass (1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12); Sebastian De Krom: percussion, drums (1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12); Calum Gourlay: bass (2, 4, 8, 10, 11); Matt Skelton: drums (2, 4, 8, 10, 11); Nigel Hitchcock: tenor saxophone (1, 2, 13); James Morrison: trumpet (3); Daniel Pioro: strings; Palome Deike: strings; Charlotte Bonneton: strings; Glensi Roberts: strings; Jenny Ames: strings; Robert Ames: strings; Magda Pietraszewska: strings; Tristan Horne: strings.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.