REVIEW: Melissa James at Pizza Express Dean Street

Melissa James.Photo Credit: Mike Watts

Melissa James
(Pizza Express, Dean Street, 11 July 2014. Review by Sarah Chaplin)

London-born vocalist Melissa James was appearing for the first time at Dean Street. She rose to the occasion with warmth and generosity, presenting engaging songs, some of them from her 2012 album Day Dawns, with her well-chosen band and drawing us into her creative inner world. Ranging from feisty to reflective, we were treated to a look through her lens, hearing observations about life transmitted by the power of her soulful voice and her uplifting lyrics.

Opening with Live Again, James quickly connected with her audience and by the fourth number in, we were happily providing a clapped accompaniment to Step by Step, which she led off a cappella. We were then invited to explore the wilds of Norfolk in the entrancing song Still, had a romp around the capital in Old Mother London, co-written with Tom Robinson, before the quiet and affecting Troubled and the contrastingly upbeat Sing.

Bolstered by her enthusiastic reception, the second set took more risks, launching into things with The Unexplained, played with just guitar and voice, and later presenting a reworked version of You Make Me Feel Good with its a funky, sexy groove. James was fully in control throughout, showing great dynamics and expression, and making full use of the different characteristics of her velvety voice.

James’ material defies a single categorical definition – despite the jazz venue, her voice and style embodies more soul and blues with some folk and gospel here and there. Having released her first album, Day Dawns, in 2012, she has been appearing at a variety of venues and festivals across the UK, as well as setting up a run of gigs in churches, whose atmosphere and acoustics suit her voice particularly well.

There is something timeless, restrained yet catchy about all her songs, something surely all radio stations and promoters are looking for. Personally I would have liked a few more - or longer - instrumental solos from her band: Arthur Lea on piano, Nick Pini on electric and double bass, Tim Nugent on drums, and Tom Gamble on guitar, who all played sensitive, mellow interludes and were clearly enjoying the set. The songs she sang were co-written and arranged with pianist and composer Ross Lorraine, for me the most original one – and perhaps the most clearly in the jazz idiom – being the title track from her album, Day Dawns, with its beautiful harmonies and intriguing melody, proving that Melissa James has the complete package – gorgeous voice, lovely demeanour and talented writer.

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