mon 22/04/2024

Album: Emma Smith - Snowbound | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Emma Smith - Snowbound

Album: Emma Smith - Snowbound

We should all head out to hear Emma Smith - live and often

You wait a whole decade for an album by UK jazz vocalist Emma Smith to turn up… and then...if not quite two, then one and most of a second (a full album Meshuga Baby, released in June, and this five-track Christmas EP)... turn up.

Not that Emma Smith isn’t ever extremely busy and in-demand. Turn the clock way back and she was already singing out in front of big bands from her early teens, she then had the vocalist slot with NYJO, a "chair" once held by Amy Winehouse. Smith has been a regular Puppini Sister for years, and has worked with everyone from Michael Buble, Georgie Fame and Robbie Williams to Bobby McFerrin and Seal...

There is always real craft here, she has a compelling stage presence, and she is a regular at Ronnie Scott’s which is where I last heard her, singing at the Tina May Celebration in September. She was switching effortlessly from taking the solo limelight for her own numbers to slotting in as a member of the vocal team which brought seemingly effortless joy to a tricksy and switchbacking ensemble arrangement of “Weaver of Dreams”.

Her full album, Meshuga Baby with Jamie Safir’s piano/bass/drums trio starts with a statement of intent, the idea that she intends, understandably, to do things her way: the 1905 Sutton/Lenox song “I Don’t Care”. The album combines fascinating takes of songs by Jewish composers, plus Smith’s own songs. One stand-out is possibly the slowest version ever recorded of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. Is it possible to imagine Irving Berlin’s song as a torch ballad with exquisitely shaped and seemingly impossibly long phrasing? Try it. It really shouldn’t work, but it really does.

One reason why it is so effective is because of the crystal clear way Emma Smith understands, elucidates and communicates song texts. If there is a current school of jazz singing which is to suggest, to understate, or to even muffle the lyrics. That is not a direction Emma Smith cares to take. There is the kind of clarity of the words here reminiscent of, say, Ernestine Anderson or Marlene Verplanck. Here, the short introduction and the ending to “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” both provide masterclasses in making every syllable count. 

There are other places where Smith’s deep knowledge of the canon comes through. Her own innuendo- and double-entendre-laden “Santa Blues” seemed, to my ears, to channel Bessie Smith via Ruth Brown.

And this Christmas selection, when contrasted with “Meshuga Baby”, is much more about joyous communication and sparring and happy interaction with a top-flight UK band. The instrumentation here is the classic jazz organ trio (Ross Stanley on Hammond, Nick Costley-White on guitar, and Ed Richardson drums) plus saxophone and voice. Organist Ross Stanley, one of the UK’s most in-demand Hammond players finds all kinds of instrumental colour. Saxophonist Alex Garnett, heard first on baritone and later on tenor is is a wonderful foil for a vocalist, and he is up for any challenge. Particularly impressive is a bustling, fast-swinging “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” with astonishing crispness and clarity, and with bebop vocalese shared in fleet unison with Alex Garnett which happily breaks all known speed limits.

This Christmas collection, well recorded at the Fish Factory, with the expert ears of Rob Mullarkey (mixing) and Andew Lawson (mastering) at work, has a lightness and a joy about it, it is all carried off in a wonderfully communicative way. Perhaps it serves above all as a reminder that Emma Smith one of those performers for whom we should all be heading out to hear live, and often. She never disappoints.


She intends, understandably, to do things her way


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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