If the title of chief contender to Jamie Cullum in the classic jazz singer crooner department actually existed, singer-pianist Anthony Strong would fill the role perfectly.
Accompanied by Cullum’s former drummer Sebastiaan De Krom and Empirical’s Tom Farmer on bass plus a big band stocked with well known players plucked from the modern mainstream scene whose ranks include flautist Gareth Lockrane and saxist Nigel Hitchcock this is far better than 2013’s overly mannered Stepping Out.
Strong’s voice has matured more into his own style and rather than sounding like a younger, more bashful Cullum as he did unavoidably on the earlier album but not so here (his voice is a little higher than Cullum’s with a different timbre) there is a confidence here that translates live too as witnessed last year at the city of Derry jazz and big band festival where he delivered an excellent show in the Spiegeltent. The Croydon born 30-year-old is also a fine piano player although that side of his musicianship is overshadowed here by the emphasis on vocals.
This new album was co-produced by Curtis Schwartz, known for his work with Stacey Kent, and is bookended by the Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner song ‘On A Clear Day’, first performed by another Cullum, actor/singer John Cullum in the mid-1960s, and Strong’s co-written song with Guy Mathers, ‘The Outgoing Admininstration.’
The big band sounds like it is an old fashioned sometimes swaggering unit of some power and it is even more retro in the arranging than the style favoured on the big band tracks of Joe Stilgoe’s new album. But there are some lighter touches in the set-pieces and the odd flourish or two, with for instance a little quotation from George Shearing’s ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ sewn into the rip roaring lining of ‘Whatever Lola Wants’ adding a touch of magic. The horns are boppy and bright throughout.
A mix of Great American Songbook-type classics and more contemporary material, hoary old tunes such as ‘As Time Goes By’ and ‘Unforgettable,’ the latter done as an airy samba, are placed alongside Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’ and Elvis Costello’s ‘Baby Plays Around’. Strong’s co-written song ‘That Kind of Guy’ is the best of his original songs (although ‘When It Moves You’ comes close), the rapport between singer and exuberant big band full of spirit, and the originals contribute heavily to the success of the album.
Increasingly a draw on the festival circuit both in Europe and the Far East Strong’s career trajectory is clearly on the rise, and that process of growth should receive an extra boost with the release of On A Clear Day on 18 May as it is made to measure for fans of classic jazz vocals with just enough of a contemporary twist to keep it real. Stephen Graham