Review: Emily Saunders Band at The Spin, Oxford



Emily Saunders Band
(The Spin, Oxford, 11th Oct. 2012. Review by Alison Bentley)


Vocalist Emily Saunders' heroes are instrumentalists: Hermeto Pascoal, Miles, Monk. She's a particularly instrumental singer, a true improviser. Her band wasn't there just to back her: the voice emerged from the band as an integral part of it, inviting us to listen but never haranguing.

She's known for her versions of Brazilian tunes and her own Latin-shaded compositions, so it was a surprise to hear a swinging Straight No Chaser as an opener, and it settled the band and audience into familiar territory. Nature Boy followed, and Saunders began to show her wide spectrum of vocal colours: throughout the gig she sang the lyrics breathily, like Gretchen Parlato, cutting off notes quickly as if she was whispering a secret to the audience. But her scat singing had a huge range- as she sang she moved her right hand expressively, like a magic trick, as if plucking the notes from the air. She listened to the band, waiting for the right notes, taking her time.

The mood became more experimental in Saunders' own tunes: in You Caught Me she drew on a Julie Tippetts-style repertoire of free jazz sounds. Her solo had some very deep, sinuous sliding notes, like Betty Carter, then hit high, clear strong notes, like Luciana Souza. Trumpeter Byron Wallen also used free squeals and trills at times in Saunders' Days, then played perfectly-phrased Freddie Hubbard-isms in a warm, welcoming tone. Drummer Jon Scott echoed the song's gentle mood by playing the toms with his hands like a percussionist.

Saunders enjoys contrasts, and Wallen's earthy trumpet was a good foil for her smooth clear voice; but the songs where Wallen didn't play gave Saunders space to develop a muted trumpet sound in her own voice: the ballad You With Me (sung with just piano) and the slow Latin Dream. Ivo Neame's fine piano solo clustered the notes around the beats like iron filings round a magnet.

The whole band sounded wonderful on the fast, tricky Brazilian tunes: alert, yet relaxed with each other. Hermeto Pascoal's Gingo Carioca is an impossibly convoluted tune, and it was sung here with playful precision, in unison with the trumpet. Wallen's solo alternated gruff tones and split notes with a full passionate sound, reminiscent of Wynton Marsalis. Excellent bassist Dave Whitford played patterns across the bars, working with Scott's huge drum sound to create an anchored yet loose groove. In Gismonti's O Sonho, Saunders would sometimes float across the beat, then sing a sharply rhythmic phrase with Neame's extraordinary Chick Corea-like Fender Rhodes. Airto Moreira's 7/8 samba Mixing had a very precise, strong bass motif and Saunders sang against it with Flora Purim's fluttering tone, using her voice as percussion- she sounded just like a cuica. Moreira's Xibaba ended the evening: a festive two chord samba in 6 with a piquant raised 4th in the melody. Scott kept the 6 feel on hi-hat and bass drum all through his amazing polyrhythmic solo, and still smiled! Neame had some of Hermeto Pascoal's insistent punchy piano style, as if playing a percussion instrument, then played free over the beat. Big cheer from the audience!

Emily Saunders brought her own idiosyncratic gentleness to these rarely sung tunes, and her own compositions were captivating: sung with with sophistication, subtlety, serenity and a huge sense of fun.

Emily Saunders Band is at Pizza Express Dean St. London, 24th Oct. then touring.

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