CD REVIEW: Joanna Wallfisch - Gardens in My Mind

Joanna Wallfisch - Gardens in My Mind
(Sunnyside Records SSC1455. CD Review by Zosia Jagodzinska)

Jazz vocalist and songwriter Joanna Wallfisch has built an impressive reputation since moving to New York in 2012, playing with big names such as Wynton Marsalis and Lee Konitz. Reviewers have drawn attention to both her ‘focused, crystalline delivery’ (DownBeat) and also to the originality of her songs.

Such success will perhaps come as no surprise. Wallfisch belongs to a family of extremely accomplished classical musicians, but she has determinedly forged her own creative path with studies in Art at Central St Martins and Jazz at the Guildhall School of Music. A broad range of influences informs the vivid imagery and eclecticism of her songwriting, both musically and lyrically.

Gardens in My Mind is a collection of originals and covers (Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley.) People who admire the voices of Norma Winstone or Joni Mitchell, the raw lyricism of Fiona Apple (The Idler Wheel..), the Ballads of Kurt Weill, or the atmospheric film music of Yann Tiersen- will surely find things to like on this album. Wallfisch achieves a sophisticated and beautiful juxtaposition of contrasting sound worlds and styles; something which could feel jarring or forced in lesser hands.

This is, by her own confession, her ‘most adventurous’ record to date. She has written full arrangements for string quartet and piano, resulting from a special commission by the Salisbury Festival to collaborate with the Sacconi Quartet. It is these unusual, highly expressive arrangements, coupled with their sensitive and virtuosic execution by pianist Dan Tepfer and the Sacconis, which elevate the songs to a new level, making this a truly transporting record that warrants multiple listens. The roles of the quartet and the piano change throughout, at times providing heartbreakingly tender atmosphere (Anonymous Journeys, Patience), at others, playing the clown (Brighton Beach), elsewhere providing a cinematic narrative via dramatic turns of phrase, striking dissonances and unexpected textural changes which reveal conflicting urges in the lyrics. The arrangements provide not only a beautifully shifting sonic tapestry over which Joanna sings her stories, but also an intriguing subtext for her lyrics, ensuring the songs remain interesting on repeated listens as we question their multiple meanings. Life is a strange, sad, joyful and surprising journey, and Wallfisch communicates its contradictions playfully and tenderly.

Harmonically and melodically, mercurial twists and turns keep the listener on their toes in Moons of Jupiter and This Is How You Make Me Feel. The latter is a catchy, smile-inducing portrayal of the excitement of being in love; irresistible in its joyful forward motion, the music unexpectedly descends into manic dissonance via a ‘breakdown’ initiated by unravelling lines in the Quartet. Elsewhere, Wallfisch employs a Stravinsky-esque sense of neo-classical humour, borrowing and distorting well known material to humorous effect (Beethoven’s Fur Elise is pulled apart in Brighton Beach). Her bold exploration of quick changes in mood and style results in a well rounded listening experience of dark and light, intense and whimsical.

Vocally she retains composure within the surrounding drama. Her delivery and phrasing  are beautiful,  intimately confessional and expressive, yet never overtly emotional. The combination of this controlled, unfussy delivery with the drama and unpredictability of the accompaniment works well. Emotional tension is created via the intriguing push and pull between the vocal and accompaniment lines, working together and against each other.

The Sacconi Quartet offer a wealth of expression and personality with their impressive range of colours and textures; from icy cold false harmonics and whispered tremolos (Moons of Jupiter), feathery pulsing heart beats (Patience) and a darkly hollow alto flute sound (Anonymous Journeys) via coiling passages of great tenderness and warmth (Moons of Jupiter) to lighter pop and musical theatre stylings (Distant Shores), mischievous pizzicatos (Satin Grey) and the fabulously wonky solos and scratchings in Brighton Beach, where Tepfer’s zany melodica deserves a special mention.

Tepfer’s piano playing is delicate and empathetic throughout, as are his own arrangements, which blend seamlessly into the record, demonstrating the strength of Wallfisch and Tepfer’s musical relationship. This is chamber music making of the highest level, from all involved.

Gardens in My Mind is a compelling journey of experimentation and adventure, expressing the minutiae of Wallfisch's daily experiences, relationships and changing moods. The record is both fresh and familiar, showing a wide range of influences, yet it always remains distinctive.

Joanna Wallfisch will be performing at the Forge in Camden Town on Saturday November 19th at 2pm as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival

LINK: Joanna Wallfisch Interview

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