I’m writing this en route back from the Norwich Jazz Party – in the hope that it will be of interest to anyone considering visiting Ronnie Scott’s in Soho on Wednesday or Thursday night..
One of the highlights of the Norwich event this year was a series of sets by Annie Ross, the soon-to-be octogenerian singer who is appearing at Ronnie Scott’s this week. Perhaps the word “vocalist” would be more appropriate as what the deep-voiced Ross does these days is as much about speaking the lyrics as it is about singing them.
Nobody expects a voice to sound as if it’s been unaffected by the ravages of time – not to mention a life in jazz – so there’s no point in going along expecting to hear the Annie Ross who made her name in the 1950s with the tongue-tying Twisted and her other hits with the pioneering vocalese group of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
I hadn’t heard Ross live before but had watched her on YouTube and had read reviews of her performance in Glasgow three years ago. I knew the voice wasn’t what it once was, but I expected that the appeal and pleasure of the experience would lie as much in the history that she represents (she’s a direct link to Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, etc) as in the performance she would give.
So it came as something of a surprise to find that hers were some of my favourite sets of the weekend – especially her opening session on Saturday night. After being taken aback initially by quite how ravaged her voice is – and fast tunes like Twisted aren’t perhaps the best showcase for it – I became first attuned to and ultimately blown away by her performance, especially on ballads.
Lush Life, from the Saturday night set, was simply a masterpiece of storytelling. Accompanied by her regular pianist Tardo Hammer, she seemed to inhabit every word, making the familiar Billy Strayhorn song deeply personal in the process. Fran Landesman’s All the Sad Young Men, on Sunday, had a similarly moving effect; its lyrics invested with experience and Hammer’s piano accompaniment exquisitely elegant and sensitive.
She certainly knows how to put a band together, does Ms Ross. Her other secret weapon is the magnificent cornettist Warren Vache who sat slightly to her side and beamed like the teacher’s pet when she glanced his way. On slower numbers, his beguiling obbligato playing wrapped itself round her sparse vocals like furls of smoke, and ramped up the raunchiness and pzazz of faster tunes. He and Hammer are integral to the Annie Ross show.
As is the acknowledgement of the past which, in Ross’s case, is rich with legends from the jazz world – from Prez, Coltrane, Bird and all the other jazz greats who feature on the roll call that is Music is Forever, the homage Ross wrote to all her old musician friends, to Billie Holiday, to whom Ross paid tribute with a lovely interpretation of Travellin’ Light.
I remember seeing Ross in a documentary on Billie Holiday in which she said that her favourite Holiday LP was Lady In Satin, which Lady Day recorded at the end of her life – and on which her voice sounded painful and worn-out. Ross said she loved the fact that this was a voice that had lived.
While listening to Ross isn’t the harrowing experience that listening to “late-era” Billie is, it is the voice of experience nonetheless – and its appeal to those of us who were moved by her music in Norwich echoes her own feelings about Lady in Satin.