There is a dream-like quality to Stacey Kent, a voice you don’t hear every day, one that conjures up songs of love and romance, and recalls an era in popular song that remains somehow vital.

It’s a sound that retains a certain innocence, cloaked in the sophistication of the Great American Songbook, the bossa nova and samba sounds of Brazil, and the heady preoccupations of French chanson. It’s a voice, too, that through extensive touring and the release of a string of best selling records, the world has got to know well.

Since her debut album Close Your Eyes in 1997, Stacey Kent made her mark early on with a voice that reminded some listeners a little of Blossom Dearie. The late Humphrey Lyttelton played her records on the radio and Kent soon staked out a place of her own, sounding unlike anyone around. She quickly began to tour widely and released more records.

With the album Dreamsville Kent reached a turning point. Listen to ‘Violets for your furs’ for instance and you’ll hear a new seriousness, a less girlish confidence in the slow tempo, and an enunciation that is still quite remarkable, although from her first records Kent’s diction was often remarked on as was her interpretation of complex lyrics.   

By 2012, in a space of just 15 years, Stacey Kent has become one of the world’s most popular jazz singers. How she has achieved this is marked along the way by certain milestones, the chief of which was her signing to Blue Note records, which she announced in the summer of 2006 the night Quincy Jones appeared on the same stage she performed on at the Mermaid Theatre at the BBC Jazz Awards. Her first album for the label began a new songwriting partnership with the Booker prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro who, with her husband saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, wrote lyrics especially for Stacey, a partnership that made an immediate impact with ‘The Ice Hotel.’

Last year, on her first live album Dreamer In Concert, a more recent song joined their growing catalogue, the charming ‘Postcard Lovers’. Describing Ishiguro’s lyrics Kent says: “They’re very tender, optimistic, the perfect balance between the joy and the pain; and there’s one other thing that they do for me, there’s a lot of space, a lot of breathing. The lyrics allow me to talk to myself.”

Born in South Orange, New Jersey on 27 March 1968, as a young girl Kent was influenced by her grandfather. “He was crazy about poetry”, she said speaking in Paris last year. “And he taught me to speak French. There was no English in our life. He would recite poetry to me. I adored this man. My grandfather was not happy in America. It was sort of a joke in the family. It was a beautiful little universe that the two of us had, and I shared the same sensibility that he had.”

No surprise then that before embarking on a career as a jazz singer she studied modern languages, but decided to follow her instincts and move to England for more study. While London may have made her and music became her direction incorporating her love of foreign languages by singing in French later in her career, in the capital she made a home for herself, got married, and in the early-1990s first started getting noticed. She sang in Soho restaurants and clubs, and then cropped up in a small film role in Richard III starring Ian McKellen, singing a lightly swinging version of Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd To His Love’ with its coquettish opening line ‘Come live with me and be my love.’

Kent soon reached another staging post in her career with a rich run of form in 2002 and 2003 and on The Boy Next Door showed new aspects of her artistry by delivering a poignant interpretation of Paul Simon’s pretty melody ‘Bookends’ that hinted at new directions, along with her take on Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ and possibly a future as a jazz singer who spreads her wings.

Since her initial album for Blue Note Kent has turned her attention increasingly towards chanson and Brazilian music and on Raconte-Moi sang in French partly a reflection of, like her grandfather, the affection she holds for the language and culture of France, and partly as she has become one of the biggest jazz vocal stars there touring relentlessly and to enthusiastic response. She also became a ‘chevalier’ in the order of arts and letters, an award presented to her by the French minister of culture.

Fittingly Kent decided to record her first live album in Paris at La Cigale, an album that ranks with her very best, and judging by the audience overtures faithfully captured by the Blue Note engineers went down a treat in the theatre. British audiences see her less often these days as she is so much in demand beyond these shores, but last autumn the singer returned to her old stomping ground of Ronnie Scott’s straight from an appearance in Oslo. The first set of the performance that night was dominated by the wonderful linking of two Jobim songs ‘Dreamer’ and then ‘Quiet Nights’ (‘Corcovado’) both reflecting her affection for the English lyrics of the late Gene Lees.

With Stacey’s band that night of Graham Harvey on piano comping admirably while Jeremy Brown on stand up acoustic bass and attentive drummer Matt Skelton were as slick as they needed to be, Tomlinson’s tenor playing moved beyond his preferred Getzian hinterland and Stacey surprised everyone by playing guitar on the Brazilian songs.

What the future holds for Stacey Kent is anyone’s guess. While plans for her next album could well feature a Brazilian direction she has now reached a certain point in her career when she could go in one of several directions. But one thing is clear as her fame spreads, and even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was moved to name check her at a widely reported developer conference last year. “The best”, as the song she sings so well has it, “is yet to come.”

Stephen Graham

Stacey Kent appears at Sculpture by the Lakes, Pallington Lakes, Pallington tomorrow http://www.sculpturebythelakes.co.uk and the Jazz and Blues Fest, Burton Agnes Hall on Saturday http://www.yorkshire-east-coast-unofficial-guide.com/burton-agnes-jazz-and-blues-festival-68-july-2012.html

This article was originally published as a programme note for two Stacey Kent concerts presented by the St Luke’s Music Society in Battersea, south London on 28 April http://www.slms.org.uk

Next month sees the first Happy Days Samuel Beckett festival and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble are to perform their magnum opus 1969’s The Sinking of the Titanic and a world premiere of The Beckett Songbook.

Bryars says: “I have chosen six poems for the collection, four of which are performed here: ‘My way is in the sand flowing’, ‘I would like my love to die’, ‘Song’ and ‘Something There’.”

The festival, which takes place in Enniskillen, county Fermanagh from 23-27 August, where Beckett went to school at Portora, also includes theatre performances of Krapp’s Last Tape, Rough for Theatre II, What Where and What Is The Word, Act Without Words 1, All That Fall, and Not I; readings and talks by among others Paul Muldoon and Alice Oswald, Edna O’Brien, John Banville, John Calder, James Knowlson, Lady Antonia Fraser, and Maggi Hambling. There’s also an exhibition ‘Tree for Waiting for Godot’ by Antony Gormley which runs from 16 July until 13 September. Stephen Graham

Pictured: Antony Gormley

http://www.happy-days-enniskillen.com

Bob Belden has just played his first gig in London since 1980 last night performing a special surround sound set before following up this return to the capital with a club date at the Vortex tomorrow night.

The flautist/saxophonist and record producer last appeared here with Woody Herman, just two years after Belden graduated from the University of North Texas.

In recent years Belden has been a hugely significant Miles Davis reissue producer, and his own records as a leader have pushed forward a consolidated reading of jazz noir, particularly his 2001 album Black Dahlia.

With Animation made up of Belden, opening up on flute before switching to saxophone later, along with the blindingly propulsive electric bassist Jacob Smith; winningly brittle trumpeter Peter Clagett; Nord keyboardist Roberto Verastegui channelling the Bitches Brew era; and the Zach Danziger-like drumming of Matt Young, he performed a special set in Ambisonic surround sound with live video projections at the Tabernacle in west London.

The project is a collaboration with sound architect Serafino Di Rosario who was also on stage last night crouched behind a MacBook.

Di Rosario explained in a short talk to the audience how the technology is like the grandson of Dolby 5.1, and demonstrated echo delays and volume flexibility with sounds unexpectedly “living” in the room in a more organic way, a sense of being there.

With the audience sitting in the centre surrounded by speakers the band played a wide range of Belden material, and also debuted songs from new album Transparent Heart for RareNoise.

The standout new song of the evening was ‘Occupy’, Belden’s tribute to the protest movement that sprang up in New York’s Zuccotti Park last September and fanned out all around the world.

With projected images that showed solarised marching bands and almost robotic city figures ‘fried’ in the psychedelic graphic effects, as well as Antony Gormley-like lonely figures on high rise buildings, the performance was also in a way a homage and wake-up call to Manhattan, “an island off the coast of America”, as Belden told the audience.

Earlier in his dressing room Belden spoke of his admiration for Blue Note producers such as Duke Pearson, and explained how Michael Cuscuna got him involved in working on detailed reissue projects in the first place.

Other projects have seen Belden make a video documentary more recently with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. With the Herbster Belden also arranged songs on Hancock’s innovative 1990s album A New Standard, an album way ahead of its time.

Belden’s new album was recorded in Bill Laswell’s studio in New Jersey. Plans are afoot to bring the Animation surround sound show back to London in the autumn as well as stage it in New York.  Stephen Graham

Above: Mr B

For tickets to the Vortex show tomorrow, go to www.vortexjazz.co.uk

 

Pentangle’s ‘Light Flight (Theme From Take Three Girls)’ is just one of the rarities included on a new double CD compilation, TV Sound and Image: British Television, Film and Library Composers 1956-80 featuring hard-to-find TV, film and library music. Curious then given the dates in the title that the strap line on the cover (below), has different dates.

http://www.souljazzrecords.co.uk/releases/?id=28326#

Rocksteady is a style of reggae I’ve often been drawn to, with Toots and the Maytals and Augustus Pablo among my heroes. I’ve been listening to some Bitty McLean as well recently who I’m less familiar with, and he’s performing with the Jamaican Legends band soon, alongside Ernest Ranglin, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, and Monty Alexander appearing on 29 July as part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence at London’s IndigO2 in Greenwich. He’s also playing in the more intimate surroundings of the Jazz Cafe in Camden two days later.

The O2 is playing host to the Jamaica 50 Festival for 12 days of gigs with some of the greatest names in reggae and Jamaican music taking part including Jimmy Cliff,Yellowman, U-Roy, Mighty Diamonds, Marcia Griffiths, Freddie McGregor, Maxi Priest, Damian Marley, Derrick Morgan, and Toots and the Maytals all to appear.

Born in Birmingham on 8 August 1972 McLean had hits in the early 1990s with Fats Domino’s ‘It Keeps Rainin’ (Tears from My Eyes)’ a big breakthrough, and he also worked with UB40 as an engineer/producer as well as singing with the band. His albums include On Bond Street, and Movin’ On, with Sly and Robbie, recorded in Jamaica, and he continues a gigging association with the great Jamaican rhythm team to this day. With the “Riddim Twins" McLean has also recorded a follow up to Movin’ On to be released (although this is still unconfirmed) in the autumn.  

Stephen Graham

Pictured above: Bitty McLean

http://www.theo2.co.uk/indigo2

http://venues.meanfiddler.com/jazz-cafe/full-listings/featured-gigs/7042

There’s an awful lot of Keith Jarrett activity at the moment with the release in July of the Belonging Band/European Quartet’s Sleeper, which I’m sure will excite a lot of people, and acts as an even more intense companion piece to Personal Mountains.

Five Impulse! American Quartet albums from 1974-1977 have also been reissued, that’s Back hand, Mysteries, Shades, Byablue and Bop-be.

But the Standards trio has not been forgotten about, although the Lucerne album recorded in July 2009 is not coming out for the time being, although I think that’s a good thing given the amount of Jarrett activity at the moment. Sleeper alone will enchant many’s a Jarrett fan for months and possibly years to come. But hopefully Lucerne won’t be too long in the offing.

I’ve been looking at pictures taken from around the time of the concert by Olivier Bruchez and a few are below.

I’m looking forward to hearing this concert partly because I attended an Abdullah Ibrahim Ekaya concert at the venue last year which completely blew me away. 

Listening on CD to the Jarrett release won’t be quite the same as being there but part of the fun is imagining that you were there.

The concert hall has wondrous acoustics and is quite a remarkable venue with an art gallery, smaller hall, and restaurants as part of the complex overlooking Lake Lucerne.

According to unofficial fan site keithjarrett.org the title may be Somewhere, and has long versions of ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story.

Stephen Graham

image

  image

Photos: Olivier Bruchez

Blue Note president Don Was told the New York Times some weeks ago that Van Morrison was returning to the historic jazz label and details of the album have now emerged.

Titled Born to Sing: No Plan B the album is to come out on 2 October in the States nine years after Morrison’s only outing for Blue Note so far, What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Recorded in Morrison’s home city of Belfast and produced by the singer who plays a special Bluesfest show at the Hammersmith Apollo in London tonight tracks are ‘Open The Door (To Your Heart)’; ‘Going Down To Monte Carlo’; ‘Born To Sing’; ‘End Of The Rainbow’; ‘Close Enough For Jazz’; ‘Mystic Of The East’; ‘Retreat And View’; ‘If In Money We Trust’; ‘Pagan Heart’; and ‘Educating Archie.’

Stephen Graham

Van Morrison in his Blue Note days (above). The best track from What’s Wrong With This Picture? is ‘Little Village’ as most fans and casual observers know see clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ot2WQrXXoDU

Cheering news from musicweek.com that Wilton’s Music Hall has received £56,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The money is to help finance a building project to conserve and protect the venue, the last surviving Grand Music Hall. Grade II listed, the building is at-risk but earlier this year received £700,000 funding from the SITA trust to secure the first phase of a building project. The next step is for the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust to apply for a full £1.6m grant.

The venue has been used in recent years, while full restoration awaits, for gigs that make good use of its intimate and atmospheric surroundings, including an appearance by the great Malian singer/songwriter Rokia Traoré this month, and was used as a location for the basement club scenes of Stephen Poliakoff’s upcoming five-part BBC drama Dancing on the Edge set in the 1930s and the world of the consciousness-changing Louis Lester Band. Stephen Graham

Pictured above: Wilton’s

Amazing line-up at Back2Black from across the diaspora this weekend at the Old Billingsgate Market in east London.

Tomorrow it’s Macy Gray, Luiz Melodia, Linton Kwesi Johnson & Dennis Bovell, Marcelo D2, Baile Funk featuring DJ Sany Pitbull, Passinhos & Fininho, and the Emicida Drum Heads & Pracatum Drumming School.

Saturday sees some huge variety with Roots Manuva, Criolo feat. Mulatu Astatke, Hugh Masekela, Femi Kuti, Fatoumata Diawara, The Story of the Blues feat. Vieux Farka Touré, Lucky Peterson & the Roberto Frejat band, Soul Caribbean, DJ Nepal, Shrine Synchro System, TonoFlavio, Renegado, Candylo, Drum Heads & Pracatum Drumming School again and Sunday features Gilberto Gil, Amadou & Mariam, Martn’nalia, Toumani Diabaté + Arnaldo Antunes + Edgar Scandurra, DJ Joao Brasi, Jupiter & Okwess International, All Comers Drumming Workshop, Afrik Bawantu, Natasha Llerena plus DJs and a full talks programme.