Anita Wardell, Nigel Price, Terry Seabrook, Nigel Thomas, Spike Wells
Friday January 30TH 2015
The Verdict, Brighton
“I first got the idea to sing this one while I was single, lounging in jim-jams, watching a romantic film and eating pasta!” is vocalist Anita Wardell’s modest introduction of It Might As Well Be Spring on this, her debut performance at the Verdict. There is multiple irony at play here: not only is she an established jazz festival act – she featured at Scarborough Jazz Festival and Titley Jazz Festivals in 2014 with the songs of Johnny Mandel – she is also a recording artist for Proper Records, having released the albums Noted (2006) Kinda Blue (2008) and The Road (2013).
The irony thickens as the audience is treated to Wardell’s plaintive, almost child-like take on this ballad first recorded by Shirley McRae. She has a surprisingly innocent, simple vocal sound, quite distinctive from other well-known contemporary jazz singers, and her precision and diction make her stand out. She can give a storytelling touch to a melody, which brings the song to life and can easily capture an audience’s heart.
This evening brings together a lineup of Nigel Price on guitar, fresh from his appearances at Ronnie Scott’s; vocalising double bass player Nigel Thomas; pianist Terry Seabrook, bandleader and accompanist to many jazz names visiting Brighton; and rhythmic legend Spike Wells on drums, well known for his work with saxophonist Bobby Wellins.
Wardell proves herself more than equal to the stellar atmosphere, perhaps because of her cleverly placed stylistic simplicity and the economy of her vocal. From the first notes of her take on But Not For Me and Willow Weep For Me, assisted by Nigel Thomas’ articulate bass solos, her sound feels easy on the ear and yet intensely musical at the same time.
She can also turn complex, however: on Oh Lady Be Good, she delivers lightning-fast scatting which easily matches the speed of Nigel Price’s articulate, powerful, strikingly precise guitar phrases and the rumbling panoramic drum talk of Spike Wells. This is interspersed with call-and-response passages with Seabrook’s piano, further highlighting the singer’s innate musicality.
In fact, Wardell is famous for her scatting, which, as several audience members are keen to tell me in the interval, is all too rare an art amongst jazz vocalists you see nowadays. In the first set, she subtly embellishes the tune of Who Can I Turn To? by Anthony Newley with well-chosen scat flourishes. In the second set, she produces another string to her bow: vocalese, which is used to dramatic effect on Gillespie’s Night in Tunisia, featuring showy bursts of vocal glissandos, coupled with almost quarter-tonic sliding between notes.
Speaking of showmanship, Price is not to be outdone. One of the best-received highlights of the evening sees the guitarist enhancing Margarita, by the Brazilian songwriter Djavan, with his trademark technique of a simultaneous picking of melody and rhythm on a single guitar string, frequently seen in his own shows.
By the time Duke Ellington’s In My Solitude is introduced, it's understood that Wardell is both mistress of her stage and of her music. Contrasting this mood with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Fleur de Lys, which brings out Terry Seabrook’s instinctive understanding and interpretation of Brazilian rhythmic sensibilities, and making sure to portray the true roots of jazz in songs like The Meaning of the Blues, she takes listeners on an emotional journey with highs and lows that echo their own lives, but always with humour and intelligence, and sometimes with a bittersweet self-deprecation.
But for her busy schedule, Wardell would almost certainly have been present for the launch of the Verdict in Brighton. With this most essential jazz venue’s third birthday coming up, she should be part of its continuing celebrations.
Photo by Jasmine Sharif.
This review first appeared in the March 2015 issue of The Sussex Jazz Magazine, available here.