"Experienced" is seldom an appropriate adjective to apply to a 21 year-old performer, but it's perfectly apposite when applied to singer and composer Emma Smith. She began singing with a big band at the age of 14 and was, barely a year later, a mainstay of Britain's National Youth Jazz Orchestra. With the support of musicians such as Sir John Dankworth and Nikki Iles, and an ever-increasing list of club and festival performances, Smith is rapidly becoming one of the most exciting singers on the UK scene: The Huntress is an assured and fascinating debut.
On The Huntress Smith is joined by the talented and sympathetic trio of pianist Matt Robinson, bassist Tim Thornton and drummer Andy Ball. Saxophonist Stan Sulzmann guests to superb effect on three tunes. Smith's songwriting draws its inspiration from a wide spectrum of influences. Most intriguingly, on "The Huntress" and "Stolen Child" she displays a direct connection with the folk traditions of the British Islesmoving stylistically closer to singers like Norma Waterson and Sandy Denny. She also delivers a lovely version of the traditional tune "She's Like The Swallow."
Smith's lyrics are creatively enigmatic, coupling strong imagery with a sense of mystery. The barefooted huntress of the title track is a scary, potentially murderous, character. But who exactly could she be? "Make believe is my favorite game" sings Smith, adding to the puzzle. The theme of "Stolen Child" (based on W. B. Yeats' poem of the same name, although Yeats doesn't get any credit on the album sleeve) harks back to the world of Faerie and changelings swapped for mortal babies: not the usual fare for a jazz album. Songs like "Room Service" and "56 Weeks," featuring a standout solo from Robinson, are more straight-ahead, but no less stylish.
The real diamond in this sparkling collection is Smith's reading of Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal's "I'll Be Seeing You." It's a restrained, beautifully paced, performance. Smith's vocal has a perfect mix of technique and emotional engagement while Sulzmann's tenor saxophone weaves in and out of her voice and builds the emotional impact to an irresistible high.
As might be expected at the age of 21, there is a touch of youthful over-exuberance: the narrative mid-section of "The Huntress" crosses the line from drama to melodrama and loses the impact Smith created in the more atmospheric opening section. But taking chances is ultimately much more interesting than playing it safe and the overall feel of The Huntress is impressive. Smith comes across as a confident and mature artist and composer, a precocious talent who has produced an exceptional debut album.
The Huntress; Old Devil Moon; Stolen Child; Can't Slow Down; I'll Be Seeing You; She's Like The Swallow; Room Service; Don't Worry 'Bout Me; 56 Weeks; John's Law.
Emma Smith: vocals; Matt Robinson: piano; Tim Thornton: bass; Andy Ball: drums; Stan Sulzmann: saxophones (5, 9, 10).
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