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The Johanna Graham Quartet at Pizza Express, Soho, London

Fiona Ord-Shrimpton By

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The Johanna Graham Quartet
Pizza Express
Soho, London
25 May 2014

Seated under a photo of Kurt Elling's pearly whites, listening to the Johanna Graham quartet's first gig at Pizza Express in Soho was a pleasing and enjoyable experience. Jazz fans aren't that fond of hearing new vocalists sing live —on the whole, it's a mixed bag of painful and cringe worthy possibilities— the weather, temperature, a miserable audience, variable health, dodgy band relations; all take their toll on the front voice of the band. Not so this evening, a touch of vocal nerves to start perhaps, but they'd gone by the end of the first number.

The pattern of Graham's performances show her beginnings as a duo performer, for most of the songs, the vocal is followed by a fluent and supportive guitar solo; "I Will," with a cool scat ending, "They Can't Take That Away From Me," sung with a light warble, and some punchy drumming from Damian Rodd. "Too Much" written with the guitarist, Martin Bowie, swung as strong as on the album, with the first of many sympathetic bass solos from Tim Greenhalgh.

"I'm Through With Love" Graham's first recording as a duo, began with a guitar intro and followed with bass and voice, drumming with sensitive brushes and a tender bass solo got the message across perfectly. "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" a timely jazz re- interpretation of one of comeback Kate Bush's greatest hits, possibly not the no.1 re-interpretation, but one of the jauntiest. The drum sticks seemed faster than the album, and the cymbal crashes got your attention. Graham has a jazz sense of good scat, rather than the hammy theatre kind, and she can hold long notes. "Don't Let Me Be Lonely" the title song of the album began with a guitar solo, and the best female imitation of James Taylor. Graham presents spoken vocal and drama with a distinctive and subtle warble, not heard on every number and not dissimilar to Judy Garland. The guitar brought in a subtle rock twang, in preparation for things to come; the drums were quiet high hats. "People Are Strange" delivered Graham's wicked side, sung with sassy spirit. "Take Five" was a whole new tune, with a cute drum solo, a Metheny-esque-different trains-kinda-guitar riff, exciting drumming with sticks and rolls; and a glimpse of a musical likeness to Billy Kilson is always a bonus.

The second set began with "Autumn Leaves" and stirred a comparison to the late Ronnie Jordan in Bowie's guitar playing, although overall Bowie sounds like a tailored version of George Benson and himself. The arrangement was very different from the original, and a solid and unique update which makes a refreshing change. "Moon Dance," everyone's favorite tune, moved together with a lyrical bass and guitar melody. The singing was melancholic and heartfelt but not overdone. "Empty Serenade" relayed the story of a personal heartbreak that occurred two years ago. "Bye Bye Blackbird" began with a guitar intro and brushes, Graham excels at tempering hard luck stories and her delivery is never theatrical or, to borrow a phrase, too much. "Summertime" was arranged in the style of a haunted fairground. The guitar had eastern tinges; not your usual Gershwin. "Stormy Weather" showed off Graham's growl. The Guns n' Roses rock classic, "Sweet Child Of Mine," was fun but as it was nearer the end of the set —one or two low notes proved a bit of a stretch for Graham's voice; the influence of James Taylor was appreciable. "Jabberwocky" played out as a clever bit of fun. A nicely entwined unison guitar and bass section and some standout drum taps and crashes. Graham's growl and dramatic interpretation mixed well with the offbeat lyrics.

"Miss Celie's Blues" from the film "The Color Purple," was the quartet's encore—a glitzy number, reminiscent of the Suzanne Bonnar version.

In summary Graham's quartet is a lively and polished grouping, with fine instrumentals and exciting arrangements to compliment a warm and only mildly melancholic vocal; recommended for a night of good quality, value for money, after-dinner jazz.

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