Emma Smith

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Reviews of Emma Smith


02/02/2012 Charles Alexander

At a mere 21 years old, Emma Smith has a musical career and performance experience that must be the envy of her peers. From a musical family, she followed her father’s footsteps into NYJO and became its vocal coach at 15. She has appeared at all of London’s leading jazz venues and the London and Cheltenham Jazz Festivals. Now at the Royal Academy of Music, Emma is a member of her mentor Peter Churchill’s Vocal Project. So perhaps it is a surprise that she has waited so long to release her first album, The Huntress, which she launched at a packed Pizza Express Jazz Club last night.

Her opening song, the CD title track, set the tone of the evening. The melody soared and swooped, imaginative lyrics unfolded a dramatic narrative, sung and recited, before releasing into a fine piano solo by Matt Robinson. ‘Stolen Child’ combined Smith’s own lyrics with those of WB Yeats in a pleasing musical setting inspired by English folk music. Her compositions reveal an adventurous mind, prepared to depart from conventional song forms and harmonies and to explore melodic ideas reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler or Norma Winstone, while her treatment of standards can be iconoclastic with an up-tempo Latin arrangement of the ballad ‘Don’t Worry About Me’ and a subtly re-harmonised ‘Old Devil Moon’. Along with Matt Robinson, bassist Tim Thornton and drummer Andy Ball complete a first-class rhythm section, one can that deliver the tempo changes, accurate rhythms, dynamic variations and the driving swing that Ms Smith’s music demands. In exchange she offers plenty soloing space for all three to display their individual musical voices.

Stan Sulzmann, who guests on her debut CD, took to the stage in the second set, his probing sax lines, obligatos and solos the perfect complement to Emma Smith’s vocals. A confident and seasoned performer who engages her audience from the first moment, hers is a career trajectory to watch with interest.


01/02/2012 Sebastian Scotney

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.


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