CD REVIEW: Vimala Rowe, John Etheridge - Out of the Sky



Vimala Rowe, John Etheridge - Out of the Sky
(Dyad. DY028. CD Review by Alison Bentley)


John Etheridge’s wonderfully versatile guitar is familiar, from his Django-style work with Stéphane Grappelli to the jazz-rock of Soft Machine. Singer Vimala Rowe is relatively new on the scene, but on this duo recording, she matches Etheridge in her range of jazz and world music styles.

Rowe studied Hindustani classical singing in India, which colours many of the songs. In Etheridge’s arrangement of Ya Kundendu/Saraswati Sloka, a Sanskrit song for the goddess Saraswati, her voice has a lovely meditative stillness over the sitar-like guitar drone. Etheridge’s solo plays beautifully with a Lydian scale like an Indian raag. Rowe sings the Syriac Aramaic Prayer [Lord’s Prayer] with a soft strength, over Etheridge’s electronic washes and Oriental trills. He pulls the time around over simple chords, creating an atmosphere of mystery. In the Swahili love song Malaika [‘Angel’] Rowe sounds declamatory rather than rueful, while the guitar lines curl sensuously around the vocals.

Rowe has three of her own songs on the album: Blue Breeze (jointly composed with Etheridge) opens, with the a cappella voice strong- a little of Abbey Lincoln’s dramatic power: ‘…how the wicked weave, they won’t let us breathe…’ It’s especially effective with Etheridge’s plaintive desert blues note bends, and ethereal multi-tracked harmonics. The excellent Dudley Phillips joins on double bass for Sometimes We Have to Part and Drive (written by Rowe/Evol.) The first has a gentle Latin-inflected groove and an infectious chorus hook (a hint of Amy Winehouse’s R&B.) Rowe sings the high notes with power then suddenly dips down into ghosted deep notes. One of the album’s highlights is Etheridge’s overdubbed gypsy-ish solo at the end of the track- it fades out all too soon. Drive opens with Indian-style vocal improv and a warmth in the voice: ‘My heart’s come in from the cold.’ The fleet-fingered guitar solo has a Spanish tinge, while the way bass and guitar tumble over each other recalls the classic John Martyn/Danny Thompson pairing.

Rowe has sung with Alex Webb’s musical show Café Society Swing, set in the 30s and 40s, and she is clearly influenced by jazz singers of that era. In Solitude she sings gently with a lightness of touch, steel-strung guitar following, colla voce. The voice has a fluttery vibrato that recalls the early blues singers, the way Cécile McLorin Salvant does- though Rowe is less playful. Etheridge weaves his solo lines beautifully among the chords. Earl Coleman’s Dark Shadows has a bluesy swing and Rowe’s phrasing has a behind-the-beat insouciance; Etheridge frames the voice with juicy voicings.Detour Ahead has some Lena Horne in the phrasing; intimate and breathy: ‘Turn back while there’s time,’ she sings, pulling the voice right back to almost a whisper. The guitar tone shimmers as the frets creak in Etheridge’s lovely solo.

It feels as if the musicians are bringing new influences to each other and developing something different out of their many styles. A chance meeting led to Out of the Sky, and it’ll be fascinating to see how their music develops.

Alison Bentley is a singer and teaches singing. Her music is on Soundcloud

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