Sandy Brown Jazz

For most of its history, jazz has been a mainly masculine activity. The one exception has been the space carved out by the female jazz singer – performers such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Cleo Laine take their place in the jazz pantheon on equal terms with the male icons. All this is beginning to change, particularly in the UK, where a new generation of jazz musicians includes many women. There are still singers amongst them, of course, but there are also superbly talented trumpeters, saxophonists, drummers not to mention composers and arrangers. Musicians such as Laura Jurd, Nubya Garcia, Camilla George, Yazz Ahmed, Trish Clowes and Lorraine Baker are making waves not only across the British jazz scene but further afield as well.

There is a charity, the Ambache Charitable Trust, which exists to raise the profile of women in all genres of music. The Trust has helped to fund an album released on 1st June called Finding Home which sees two women, pianist/composer Kate Williams and vocalist/lyricist Georgia Mancio, collaborate on a collection of twelve songs. The lyrics from most of the songs have been written by Georgia, with the music composed by Kate.

The increasing participation of women in jazz means that a project initiated and driven forward by two women is not particularly unusual. Both Kate Williams and Georgia Mancio have, in any case, impressive jazz credentials in their own right.

Kate Williams is the daughter of classical guitarist, John Williams, and has worked with the likes of Bobby Wellins and Stan Sulzmann as well as leading her own groups. In 2016, she formed Four Plus Three joining together her own trio (the three) with a string quartet (the four). She says she was “drawn to the idea of having two bands within a band…and having had a longstanding yearning to write for strings. It was always my intention to expand the line up by inviting musician friends to guest with us including my father John for whom I wrote a short set of tunes back in 2017”. An album, Four Plus Three, was released in 2016 to widespread acclaim.

 Four Plus Three play on Finding Home. The members of the group are Kate Williams (piano), Oli Hayhurst (bass), David Ingamells (drums), John Garner (violin), Marie Schreer (violin), Francis Gallagher (viola) and Sergio Serra (cello).

Georgia Mancio is one of the top jazz singers in the UK, nominated for Jazz Vocalist of the Year in the 2018 Parliamentary Jazz Awards. She has worked in a variety of settings, most notably with Alan Broadbent with whom she collaborated on the 2017 album, Songbook. This was launched at Ronnie Scott’s in a show labelled “unequivocally one of the gigs of the year” by Jazzwise magazine.

“Having already been a fan of Kate’s Four Plus Three”, says Mancio, “I was delighted when she invited me to co-write some songs and perform as part of this stunning ensemble. Our chosen theme – Finding Home – prompted many questions and offered multiple answers: home as both a visceral and literal state, a person or place, whether global or local”.

At the core of Finding Home is a trilogy of three songs; The Last Boy on EarthHalfway, and We Walk. These all have lyrics written by Georgia Mancio and were inspired by time spent volunteering with refugee groups in Northern France and the UK. The music is by Kate Williams – who certainly knows how to write a good, hooky tune. I’ve had the album on my CD player for the past few weeks and some of her tunes have buried themselves in my head. The match between lyric and music is sometimes inspired – We Walk, for example, is about people who must leave their homes and walk to find a safer haven elsewhere: ‘We walked, we walked, we walked and on we walked / We rose, we fell. We died and we lived to tell. / We climbed, we drowned. We found and lost our way through sea and mountain’. The music has a haunting trudging quality which brilliantly reflects the lyric and the struggles of the tired walkers. It also, incidentally, features John Williams playing some atmospheric guitar.

Georgia Mancio’s voice is crystal clear and bang on the note, often with a distinct English quality reminiscent of Norma Winstone. It is also expressive and not afraid to show all sorts of different emotions. On The Last Boy on Earth, for example, there are passages where the voice turns sinister and discordant to match the lyric. A word here, again, for the music which creates different moods: from ominous, with shimmering string playing, to a sense of chaos with some effective discordance and great drumming from David Ingamells.

 A subject like the refugee crisis has its many dark sides and it would be easy for Georgia Mancio and Kate Williams to convey pessimism and hopelessness in dealing with it, but, in fact, there is much light optimism in Finding HomeHalfway, for example, is an upbeat piece with another catchy tune whose lyrics offer hope and solutions: ‘Watch me fly now I’m free! / Soaring high, / I’m on my way – this is my day!

There are three other tracks on Finding Home with Georgia’s lyrics and Kate’s music: One For The Bees is another Williams tune which drills into the mind with effective changes in tempo and a jazz-rock riff to die for. The writing for the strings is particularly striking; throughout Finding Home, the string quartet is not a gimmicky add-on but completely integral to the whole. Also, Kate has pulled off the difficult trick of writing jazz for strings – and she has the musicians to bring her vision to life.

The title track, Finding Home, has Georgia speaking the lyric in her beautifully expressive English rose voice against a hypnotic rhythm mainly generated by piano, bass and drums. Play is a light, upbeat optimistic piece of high-grade pop which would have been a hit in the sixties – it could even be a hit now. Again, great string work and some wonderfully poetic lyrics: ‘Time is just a crying clown who laughs when day is done’. Oli Hayhurst shines on bass and Kate Williams shows she can play a mean piano as well as writing great tunes.

One track – Tell The River – has words written by Georgia Mancio to a tune composed by Alan Broadbent. It is played as a slow, wistful piano/voice duet. Georgia ’s voice takes on an American Songbook quality – more Julie London or Lena Horne than Norma Winstone. Two tracks are Kate Williams’ compositions which do not feature Georgia Mancio. Heartwood is straight upbeat jazz featuring the trio playing by itself. Kate gets the chance to show off her impressive piano chops and Oli Hayhurst gives good bass. The Key is a short piece of contemporary classical for solo violin played beautifully by Marie Schreer.

And finally, there are three tracks which are not Williams/Mancio originals. Caminando, Caminando is by Victor Jara and is another tune from the album which has lodged in my brain. The arrangement is superb and Georgia Mancio’s rendition in Spanish of the lyric is mesmerising. John Williams contributes a cameo on guitar which fits perfectly. Don’t Go To Strangers has Georgia in Great American Songbook territory again. That territory is explored further in Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Chage de Saudade given English lyrics by Jon Hendricks as No More Blues. This has a most attractive fifties Hollywood feel to it but with added jazzy violin.

And now we come to the vexed issue of labels. I think some purists might quibble with the notion that Finding Home is truly jazz. Clearly, there are jazz sensibilities at work but they are often channeled into what might be termed ‘jazzish’. Indeed, some pieces drift into high end pop or, in the case of The Key, contemporary classical. The wider lesson here, though, is that if music (defined in its widest sense) is to convey complex issues and moods, then it has to use all the tools and genres at its disposal. This is what Kate Williams and Georgia Mancio have done in spades with Finding Home. In the last analysis, it is just great music and one of the best syntheses of music and words that I’ve heard in a long time.

Kate Williams’ Four Plus Three and Georgia Mancio are currently on an Arts Council England funded tour. In an admirable attempt to reach beyond the usual audience, some of these venues are well off the beaten jazz track. Some of the dates are in partnership with the child refugee charity, Safe Passage and/or other local groups. The Thornton Heath date on 29th June will have a pay-what-you-can afternoon family concert with the evening performance including a screening of the film, Calais Children: A Case To Answer.