Album review: ZOE SCHWARZ BLUES COMMOTION – The Blues Don’t Scare Me

33 Jazz [Release date 04.11.13]

Zoe Schwarz’s clarity of diction and unique phrasing mark her out as a special singer capable of making any song exclusively her own. She’s equally happy as a sultry, soulful blues singer or as a vivacious blues shouter who knows the value of the pitch, pacing and timing of her delivery. Her phrasing is predicated on knowing when to breathe and she consequently changes her vocal inflection and delivery over the course of a dozen tracks, that highlight both her effortless range and her confidence in fronting a busy band that enjoys stretching out when the opportunity presents itself.

Blue Commotion is very much the sum of its impressive parts, as guitarist Rob Koral, harpist Si Genaro and Hammond player Peter Whittaker are equally good soloists as they are accompanists, backed by the crisp rhythm section of drummer Paul Robinson and bassist Rodney Teague.

There’s a refreshing variety to the material which balances an edgy feel with some tightly arranged songs that leave you in no doubt that you are listening to a well honed live band bristling with musical ideas within the blues format.

Not everything works perfectly though, as occasionally there’s a tendency to overplay, most notably on the ponderous arrangement of ‘Just Another Day’, which aims to be a cool blues about ennui and the daily urban grind but slightly loses its way. It lacks the production polish to iron out those little moments when Zoe battles for space with an obtrusive guitar line and high in the mix horns, before the band finally slips back into the groove with a muted trumpet and harp.

Happily it’s a minor blip, as evidenced by the contrasting slow fuse blues of ‘I’ll Be Yours Tonight’. The jazzy guitar break and deep-toned harp provide a perfect foil for such sensual lines as: Don’t rush me and I’ll be yours tonight’. Who could argue with that!

She sets the standard with her precise diction on the opening ‘I Believe In You’, which is an eloquently phrased mellow blues cushioned by a meandering organ part. It’s a subtle laid back style that she revisits on the close to the mic phrasing of ‘We’ll Find A Way’.

The self explanatory ‘Liberated Woman’ has a clever, jaunty, up-tempo rhythm that is sharply at odds with the depressing domestic politics of the song, as the front line players solo impressively. The band rocks out on the tub thumping title track which benefits from a big organ sweep, a potent horn arrangement and cascading notes from Si Genaro, as Zoe adds an animated vocal that evokes the song’s meaning.

‘Lucifer Is Blue’ is anchored by a funky undertow and features some great ensemble playing, before Zoe’s belated distant harmony vocal on a song robbed of its climactic finish by a stuttering outro.

This is a vibrant album with great singing, spirited playing and original ideas that make the unexpected rap and deep toned harp solo on ‘Come Home Sweet Baby’ work so well. The band effortless slips through the gears, going up, down and sideways and they clearly enjoy themselves on the riff powered word play of ‘Your Sun Shines Rain’, which you could imagine becoming a live favourite.

The swaggering ‘Billie’s Blues’ swings with alacrity as the booming arrangement supports Zoe’s interpretative style on the Billie Holiday classic.

The band finishes with the delicate shuffle of ‘Pebble In My Pond’ and ‘Say It Isn’t So’ – a contrasting horn-led stomp with a catchy hook- that gives this fine album the upbeat ending it deserves.  ****

Review By Pete Feenstra

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