What better way to usher in a particularly strong February programme at Pizza Express Dean Street than with a debut album launch?
Emma Smith, a 21-year-old singer whose musicality and presence have been creating a buzz within the UK jazz community for a while now, was presenting her first CD The Huntress (Frantic Jazz).
Smith described herself as coming from a "scarily musical" family. Check. All the basics – true intonation, crystal-clear diction, an alert sense of phrasing and line – can be absolutely taken for granted in what she does, which is of purest quality.
That background also means an open, questing spirit, a curiosity, a freedom to choose, to try out new things, an imperative for her to find her own musical identity. Her NYJO training means she can already nail jazz standards with ease, at will, abuzz with energy or dog-tired, from morn till night. But she's chosen a harder route than that: to build her repertoire from within, as songwriter/composer. The final words of the title track to the album tell the whole story: “make-believe is my favourite game.” If some singers run the risk of getting stuck in a repertoire rut, it is safe to predict that with her capacity to absorb influences and to invent, Emma Smith won't be one of them.
Current fascinations – as she declared from the stand last night – are folk songs, particularly from the North of England. The work of Norma Winstone has been an influence – Emma Smith also takes instrumental tunes and writes lyrics to them, deepening the sense of mood, of place.
In addition to these overtly declared influences – Bjork, Vera Lynn, Sinatra were also mentioned last night – there has clearly been an absorption of current singers like Gretchen Parlato – the opening of Old Devil Moon asserted a very similar sense of rhythmic dominance and certainty to Parlato – who is also from a deeply musical family.
The trio of Matt Robinson – piano, Tim Thornton – bass and Andy Ball – drums supported well, but it was the arrival onstage for the second half of that inspirer-in-chief of British jazz Stan Sulzmann which brought the mutual listening of these younger players up a notch. They had seemed a bit pressurized, whereas Sulzmann brought to the stand his years, decades of perfect first takes. The tone was set from the first number he played in, the atmospheric “John's Law,” inspired by Highlands Suite – the work of (yet) another Sulzmann inspiree Nikki Iles – which brought forth a joyous solo from Sulzmann.
The album is a bona fide, a statement of intent made genuinely, in good faith. The launch was well attended, enthusiastically received, and will stay in the memory. An important step in the career of a singer-composer of very great promise.