Review / Preview: Ruthie Culver & the Utter Jazz Quartet - Look Stranger

Ruthie Culver & the Utter Jazz Quartet - Look Stranger
(Purring Recordings PURRCD004. Review / Preview by Rob Edgar)

People often ask at performances: “How much of that music was actually by Britten?” The answer is that the melodies are broadly as Britten wrote them, with some freedom in interpretation, whilst his piano accompaniments have been distilled into chord symbols, around which the musicians improvise, with frequent reference to the originals.

Is what the booklet says about Look Stranger, the new album by Ruthie Culver & the Utter Jazz Quartet which is a collection of songs by Benjamin Britten (with words by poet WH Auden) re-worked into a jazz idiom, in celebration of of the composer's centenary this year.

These are musician whose depth of understanding of Britten's music allows them to take liberties and freedoms with it, whilst still retaining its original essence and remaining true, making the  music flow naturally and  inevitably.

The opener, Seascape for example, opens with lilting, gently melancholic, folksy interplay between saxophonist Mick Foster on soprano and pianist Dan Hewson before the main groove, which uses the first line of the original piano accompaniment as its basis (introduced by bassist Jonny Gee), slowed down, more contemplative (there's even what sounds like a quote from Ellington's In a Sentimental Mood at the beginning of Foster's bass clarinet solo). Similarly, Fish in the unruffled lakes is a shimmering, spacey piece with subtle re-harmonisations that owes much to Britten's opening phrases.

Ruthie Culver really gets the delightfully tenacious humour of many of the jauntier songs and sings with with real cabaret-style sibilance, most effective in Tell Me the Truth About Love, a song which lends itself so well this kind of ensemble it's almost criminal (and features some subtly intricate drumming from Andrea Trillo).

The group manage to walk the line perfectly between keeping true Britten and putting their own personal stamp on it. The aforementioned Tell Me The Truth About Love is worked into a bossa nova, closing track When You're Feeling Like Expressing Your Affection is turned into a pure foot-tapping Rhythm & Blues tune.

There are many intriguing and wonderful things about this album, first and foremost of which is the ensemble's deep and thoughtful understanding of the original music:

The album is out now, and there is a tour – currently ongoing – around the country (London-date at Kings Place on 18th November) with the musicians joined by actors Sir Derek Jacobi, Roger Lloyd Pack, Simon Russell Beale, and Samuel West (different dates feature different actors).

The Remaining Dates Are:

Friday 27 September 2013
Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells
Roger Lloyd Pack

Sunday 29th September
Ropetackle, Shoreham (near Brighton)
Alex Jennings

Friday 4 October 2013
Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis
Natascha McElhone
(National Poetry Day)

Thursday 10 October 2013
Oxford Playhouse
Sam West

Friday 11 October 2013
South Holland Arts Centre, Lincolnshire
Roy Marsden

Saturday 12 October 2013
Halesworth Festival, Suffolk
Roger Lloyd Pack

Tuesday 15 October 2013
Firth Hall, Sheffield University
Roger Lloyd Pack

Thursday 17 October 2013
National Centre for Early Music, York
 Sir Derek Jacobi

Friday 18 October 2013
Egremont Concert Society, Cumbria
Roger Lloyd Pack

Saturday 19 October 2013
Chester Literary Festival
Sir Derek Jacobi

Sunday 17 November 2013
Theatre Royal, Winchester
Sam West

Monday 18 November 2013
Kings Place, London
Sir Derek Jacobi

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