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November Jazz Reviews

Judy Carmichael, who wowed her Glasgow audience on Sunday night.


A touch of New York sparkle came to the City Halls Recital Room on Sunday night when the vivacious pianist Judy Carmichael made her Scottish debut as part of Jazz International’s busy winter programme. With her witty and engaging repartee, Carmichael had won her audience over before she even began playing, and it was clear from her fast-swinging, playful opener, Lulu’s Back in Town, that her sense of humour translated fluently into her music. Like the late, great Fats Waller – who, to judge by the way she occasionally seemed to tickle the ivories, producing little flurries of notes, is a hero – she has the lightest, most delicate of touches and a warm, rich tone.

Carmichael, who was nicknamed Stride by no less a jazz piano legend than Count Basie, cut quite a dash as she tapped her leopard-print stilettoes to keep time and bobbed her blonde curls along with the music. She has made a name for herself as a purveyor of this early style of jazz piano, but such numbers as an evocative, bluesy Lazy River (and, no, she’s not related to its composer, Hoagy) and her own Boisedale Blues, which had a rollicking boogie-woogie section in the middle, demonstrated that she’s more than a one-trick pony. She even sang on a few tunes; apparently a recent addition to her CV.

That said, it was her Earl Hines and Fats-flavoured output which most delighted the enthusiastic crowd, and it was a treat to hear such rarely exhumed gems as Love Is Just Around the Corner, Christopher Columbus and Gladyse being played with such affection and panache.


Madeleine Peyroux has some following in Edinburgh. The Queen’s Hall was packed for the singer’s first concert in the capital in four years, and her welcome couldn’t have been warmer. In fact, the Queen’s Hall, with its relatively intimate, cabaret-style, atmosphere, proved to be the perfect venue for a 90-minute programme described by the 36-year-old American as “booze, blues and ballads”.

Peyroux has come a long way since her last appearance in Edinburgh. Back then, she barely spoke to the audience and looked uncomfortable when all eyes were on her. On Wednesday, she was ebullient, chatty, relaxed and very witty indeed. A handful of characteristically sad songs into the concert, she said: “I’ve made a pact with myself – that I’ll do two happy songs in my show…. Here is my happy break-up song – I’m Alright”.

That number, a sort of upbeat, uptempo torch song, was one of many which benefitted from the top-notch quartet that Peyroux had with her. Given her propensity for playing about with songs to the extent that they are sometimes unrecognisable, the presence of a band (including Hammond organist-pianist Gary “Liberace” Versace) playing the arrangements from her records acted as a sort of anchor and kept the songs from straying too far from the familiar recorded versions – though Peyroux always takes it to the limit.

There’s still something slightly unsettling about listening to Peyroux live: while her albums (notably the current one, Bare Bones, which was not much featured) are sublime; her choices – of notes, of how far behind in the lyrics to let herself fall, etc – are far from predictable, and there’s still, in the way she twists final notes and increases their volume, hints of the dying Billie Holiday about her voice.


She may have kept a busy Queen’s Hall waiting before she appeared onstage on Wednesday night, but, boy, did singer-songwriter Melody Gardot make up for lost time. Showing absolutely no sign of the physical frailty that regularly bothers her, the glamorous 24-year-old – with the Mae West sense of humour, and figure to match – sang continuously for 90 minutes and easily filled the hall when she performed her bluesier numbers.

Mind you, it didn’t start out too promisingly. Gardot’s opening song, The Rain (probably the weakest song on her superb current album, My One and Only Thrill), took a while to get going because she spent the first few moments onstage on her hands and knees doing something New Age-y with sand (only the front row and balcony seats could have seen what was going on), and then the song was preceded by a lot of seemingly random plucking of piano and bass strings, and clashing of cymbals while Gardot gyrated against the keyboard.

Once all that was out of the way, though, the concert was a revelation: here was a singer who sounded better live than on her sublime CD; her gorgeous, pitch-perfect, effortlessly agile vocals a joy whether on such exquisite ballads as Baby I’m a Fool, If The Stars Were Mine and Deep Within the Corners of My Mind or on raunchy blues-style numbers.

Gardot really came into her own once she dispensed with the theatrics and the slight aloofness of the first ten minutes and began chatting with the increasingly adoring audience.

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Five star reviews

An awful lot of awfully good CDs have landed on my desk recently, and I’ve found myself giving one five-star review after another. A coincidence of CDs worthy of so many stars only happens once in a blue moon (ask Patrick Moore), so I thought it might be worth reproducing the reviews I wrote for Scotland on Sunday’s Review section here:

Johnny Varro Featuring Ken Peplowski: Two Legends of Jazz (Arbors Records ARCD 19363) Describing anyone who’s still alive as a legend is perhaps ill-advised, but this CD is so good that it’s easy to see why the record company got a bit carried away. Veteran pianist Johnny Varro and clarinettist Ken Peplowski make an ace team; it’s always a treat to hear the dynamic Peplowski in a small group setting, and on the 15 imaginatively chosen tracks here he’s to be found in duos, trios and full quartet (with drummer Joe Ascione and bassist Frank Tate). Download: Out of Nowhere, Love Locked Out


Madeleine Peyroux: Bare Bones (Decca 6132732) The sultry yet fragile-voiced Madeleine Peyroux might be excused for her long absence since her last album by the fact that for this CD, she wrote all the songs. Ironically, the opener, Instead, has the catchy, old-timey flavour associated with the tracks on her breakthrough album, 2004’s Careless Love, but the majority of the 11 songs are intensely personal, astonishingly intimate-sounding ballads which highlight the range of influence on Peyroux’s music. It’s uneven, raw and, in a couple of spots, misjudged, but overall it’s as seductive as Peyroux’s previous releases. Download: River of Tears, To Love You All Over Again

(I actually gave the Peyroux album four stars when I first reviewed it, but have since upgraded it)


Marty Grosz: Hot Winds, The Classic Sessions (Arbors Records ARCD 19379) Opportunities to hear the great American rhythm guitarist and singer Marty Grosz in Scotland have been disappointingly rare in recent years, so this new CD is a welcome treat. The 79-year-old is in his element, playing his own imaginative arrangements with a tight, swinging unit known as the Hot Winds – featuring regular Grosz cohorts Dan Block (clarinet), Scott Robinson (various horns) and Vince Giordano (string bass, bass sax etc). In his witty notes, Grosz says he’s often asked what “hot jazz” is. Well, this CD is the definition. Download: Rent Party Blues, I Just Couldn’t Take It Baby


Duke Heitger and Bernd Lhotzky: Doin’ the Voom Voom (Arbors Records ARCD 19382) For some CD-buyers, the bigger the band, the better the value – but this album is proof that the opposite is true: less is definitely more, especially when you have players of the calibre of the US trumpeter Duke Heitger and the German piano whiz Bernd Lhotzky. The 17 tracks on this CD are an tantalising blend of standards and lesser-heard numbers exhumed from the back catalogue of Duke Ellington, James P Johnson and several obscure composers; the ballads are particularly sublime, and highlight the fact that Heitger and Lhotzky are a perfect musical match. Download: Doin’ the Voom Voom, How Long Has This Been Going On


Ken Peplowski Meets Alan Barnes: Doodle Oodle (Woodville Records WVCD127) Anyone who heard them together at the Lockerbie Jazz Festival last year will know that the American clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski and Alan Barnes, the British clarinettist and player of several types of sax, make a brilliant team. That they relish each other’s musical company is evident in concert because one always invites the other to be a special guest, and it shines through just as strongly on this terrific CD, the ideal blend of unexpected tunes; swinging, lyrical playing and good, old-fashioned fun. Download: In Love in Vain, Shady Side*

* The  original Johnny Hodges-Gerry Mulligan recording of this Hodges composition is my all-time favourite single track – so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a new version of it. However, Barnes and Peps’ version, with AB on alto and KP on tenor (rather than JH on alto and GM on baritone), stands up in its own right and actually complements the original. I know: I just played them back to back…


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