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Songs, singing, and singing along…

June 8, 2011

I spent a lot of years transfixed by the instrumental assertiveness of jazz, and songs faded into the background of my listening. They’ve come back in the last decade or so, with a growing conviction that the alchemy of words and music can do things that nothing else can (everybody else knew that, but it passed me by for a while there) – as well as a new-found respect for the voice as an instrument in its own right.

Both thoughts surfaced often in the last couple of weeks, which have been a feast of voice, largely through gorging on the Bath MusicFest. I am down to do a (short) review of that for Jazzwise, so won’t say much here about the jazzy bits of the festival – which leaves space for some more voice-related comments.

One coincidental feature was that we spent a lot of time listening to songs in languages other than English. There were a couple of hours of Ute Lemper, ranging freely over English, French and German, some African songs and more French from Carmen Souza, warming up for Richard Galliano, as well as an intervening evening of Mark Padmore with Paul Lewis singing and playing Schubert at St George’s which was all German. Later that week we even heard some songs in a set of Bulgarian wedding music from Stian Carstensen and Trifon Trifonov – no idea what language they were in but they sounded fine in the context.

That throws attention on the voice as instrument, which in the case of all these singers is just fine. It helped that Lemper’s songs are familiar – from Brecht/Weil on – and the Schubert sequence is one you can mug up on beforehand. Souza also has a great voice, and her singing is integrated beautifully with her band, especially the bassist and subtle percussionist. Still, not knowing what the songs were about did take some of the interest out of them.

It also undermined a rather half-hearted effort to get us to sing along, quite early in her set.   A curmudgeonly Englishman who can’t hold a tune, I’m disinclined anyway, but I can see the point of singalong if affirms a communal sharing of a song that everyone already knows. Doing it with one you don’t know – and which is in a stranger language – seems kinda pointless to me.

Her set did throw up one quite different moment for joining in, though. Her party piece is Horace Silver’s Song for my Father – on which she sings the original piano solo. That’s a nice use of voice as instrument to start with. We happened to be sitting next to the fantastic Ayanna Witter-Johnson (who sangs and played cello later on in a fine tribute to Nina Simone) and her piano player Peter Edwards. When Souza soared on Horace’s solo, they both sang along too, note perfect throughout. A lovely moment, and one among many over this last stretch of gigs.

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