In stark contrast to the venue at which I last reviewed a gig, PJ McGinty’s has an excellent upstairs space set aside for music: there is no reason for anyone to be there except to listen to the performers, and it is just the right size and acoustic, with its high wood paneled ceiling (although I suspect a noisy rock band might come a cropper sonically). The two acts I saw on this occasion were served perfectly by the space.
Justin Tracy is a performer with whom I was unfamiliar before I saw he was on the bill for this evening, and did a bit of listening on the intarwebz. The night was actually put on for him by his father (although he generously took the opening slot) as he is based in New York and temporarily on manoeuvres in the UK (I think ‘tour’ would be too strong a word: his website says he is ‘planning an extensive tour for 2011’, but I imagine that will be in support of his forthcoming album Simple Things.)
Justin writes songs that seem to convey a sense of positivity in the face of challenging circumstances, which is to say it’s pretty uplifting stuff, although I have to admit it’s hard to get into detailed literary analysis on the basis of watching one gig. Musically, the material takes some interesting harmonic twists and turns, with successive voicings often relating modally, and has melodies that, while accessible, are not obvious. Not being obvious seems to be his stock in trade, in fact: his guitar playing employs a percussive, rhythmically intricate fingerstyle, very much in the John Martyn school, which decorates and implies the groundbeat as much as laying it down explicitly. His vocal delivery, similarly, is highly melismatic with complex, syncopated phrasing.
This is an approach which requires an exacting degree of technical precision: there was the odd moment when Justin Tracy could be heard to waver on the edge of rhythmic incoherence, but he always pulled it back from the brink. Also impressive were his readings of John Martyn songs (of which he performed a brace). The challenge with that material is to match the incredible dynamic control of the well known recordings, and it’s impossible for the listener not to compare the performance to that very tall yardstick. So, did he play them as well as Martyn recorded them? No, but he played them excellently, and it was a joy to listen to.
In fact, his entire set was a joy to listen to. His voice moved easily between a throaty but gentle natural register and a husky falsetto, and his body language was always that of a man totally engaged in performance. He had a relaxed, but reserved and self-effacing manner that engaged the audience, and a few interesting tales to tell, which he conveyed without rambling, pitching it just right for the crowd.
Wytchazle, on the other hand, I know well, but only in its component parts. Robert Foster I had seen perform once, briefly, as a solo lutenist, while I’ve seen Daisy Windsor performing on many occasions with her previous band The Floozies. Some of their material tonight dated from The Floozies era, with (I guess, I can’t pretend to be an expert) a fair bit of new original material, and a few standards thrown into the mix.
Daisy has been performing an awful lot over the last ten years, and it really shows. I know her voice pretty well, as I’ve recorded her for a track of my own, and since I last heard her sing she’s continued to build on some already solid foundations. She has a smooth, open contralto (actually I’m guessing, but she can go pretty deep) and a notably unaffected delivery with a light vibrato, which can be moving, or just involving, as the material demands. This was always the case, but in timbre, control and phrasing she’s continued to develop, and is singing now better than I’ve ever heard her.
The real eye opener was her reading of the standards that peppered their set. To be a jazz singer requires a particular set of skills. Singers that think it’s just a question of learning a style are easily spotted: they sound as clichéd as hell. Singing a standard well requires the performer to inhabit the lyrics, and to bring out their nuances through the controlled application of a wide range of expressive devices; it also requires a great precision of intonation, hitting notes that are sometimes very odd to the ear of someone used to a more diatonic harmonic palette. Daisy’s delivery on standards is noticeably different than on her own material, with a very well judged approach to the use of terminal vibrato in particular. I have to say, she nailed it, and I was surprised, not because I doubted her abilities, but because most decent jazz singers start learning their craft early.
So what does Robert Foster bring to the party? Well, pretty much everything and the kitchen sink! On the night in question he played acoustic and electric guitar, bazouki, banjo and piano. I should start by saying that he’s a proper class act: in terms of technique and musical knowledge he’s a consummate professional, with all the bases covered. Mostly what he does with stringed instruments is to accompany Daisy melodically, while she provides a bedrock of strummed acoustic guitar, although he used his jazz electric to accompany her on one standard, while the piano was principally employed on the standards, while Daisy put her guitar aside to concentrate on singing.
Rob’s guitar playing is fluid and melodically inventive, and he utilises it to produce a cascade of shimmering obbligatos to Daisy’s vocal parts. There were occasions when I felt he could have held back a little, not because he was noodling, but more for the opposite reason: at times there was so much melodic content in his playing that it became the main feature. In the main however, his accompaniment was the epitome of tasteful, supportive embellishment; his right hand tremolo on tenor banjo and bouzouki was employed to great effect.
Daisy’s own material is mainly upbeat in theme, although it ranges from the movingly melancholy to the whimsical, and is very well directed towards the sort of audience that singer songwriters get: people who want to be entertained, but who are willing to do some work themselves, and will listen closely. Her unaffected and totally genuine stage persona is similarly well suited, setting the audience at their ease and getting them on her side before she sings a note.
Between them these two acts provided an evening of very high quality listening, entertaining, engaging, amusing and moving their audience in equal measure. I recommend you grab any chance you get to see them (Justin Tracy in particular, as the opportunities to see him play may be pretty rare).