Carol Kidd: The Art of Survival

Carol Kidd picCarol Kidd MBE may be the finest jazz vocalist Scotland has ever produced, but in times of crisis, it has been painting which has saved her – rather than singing. The ebullient, pint-sized Glaswegian, now resident in Spain, is back in her home town this month to celebrate her 70th birthday and give a trio of concerts. Oh, and to show her paintings to the public for the first time, with an exhibition and workshops at iota in Glasgow’s west end.

So how did the singer who was hand-picked by her idol, Frank Sinatra, to open his legendary Glasgow 1990 concert for him and who was accorded superstar status in the Far East due to her chart success become an exhibiting artist. “Artist?!” splutters Kidd. “There’s no way I’d call myself that! When I think about people who’ve been to art school and university, I wouldn’t dream of calling myself an artist – but the things that I’m doing are straight from the heart. That’s the only way I can put it.”

Kidd’s first brush with, er, the brush came in 2005 – when she was at her lowest ebb in the aftermath of the sudden death of her longterm partner, and manager, John and in the midst of a court case over his estate. Shuddering, she recalls: “I was a maniac. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I was a mess. You would come into my flat in Glasgow and have to walk over bank statements and papers. I really was so black about everything.

“Then, one day, my daughter Carol came to my flat with an easel, canvases, brushes, oils – everything I needed – and she said: ‘Mum, you’re dying before my eyes. You were always good at drawing so, there, go for it.’ I’ve been drawing since I was child. I used to draw the Carol painting - Coleendogs, when we had dogs, and the kids – but always in pencil. So I was always into drawing but never took it that step beyond that and actually painted anything. I didn’t have a clue.”

Nevertheless, with nothing to lose, Kidd gave it a go. “ Just putting out a bit of paint, getting a brush, putting the canvas up, and putting that first stroke on the canvas were huge steps .. and once I got an idea in my head, I was off and running. It saved me – because what it did was it blocked out everything else, because I was so focused. It really was therapy.”

Relocating to Majorca in 2007 – “it gave me the tranquility I need” – Kidd continued and developed her painting. She works with oils, and paints mostly from memory or from her imagination – everything from horses to trees to portraits.

Almost two years ago, the singer was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a lumpectomy and a course of radiotherapy. The subsequent hormone replacement medication she was put on produced awful side effects in her – and she just recently took the decision to stop it. “I have had a year and a half of hell, truly hell. I’ve had no energy, and just wanted to crawl under the sheets and sleep. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And the depression. I just wanted to throw myself under the first bus that came along. These were side effects of this pill. I took myself off them two months ago, and I’m like a new person. I’m about to try another hormone replacement therapy but if it throws me back to the way I was a year ago, then I’ll be coming off that too.”

Thankfully, she had her art to turn to – something she could lose herself in, as and when she had the energy. “That’s twice it’s done it for me. This time, it was a case of ‘Right, okay, I can’t do anything else. I can’t go out, and I cannae go and sing. So I’ll carry on with my painting. And then I started doing things that were a wee step above what I’d done before, and having more confidence, and that’s when the gallery became interested. When they saw them, they said: ‘These are good, let’s go for an exhibition.’ And at that point I was still unwell but I kept painting and painting and painting.

“I’ve done all sorts of things. I did this beautiful woman that I met when I was having my treatment, and she was having chemo so she had no hair, but, my god, her face was outstanding. She had the most gorgeous blue eyes. And I had to come home with her picture in my Carol painting - Billy Chead.”

One face that Kidd painted from memory – even though she could have referred to photos online or in the press – was that of Billy Connolly. That painting has already sold, she says proudly. “It was bought by a friend in Glasgow who saw an early version of it and said: ‘I don’t care what it costs. I want it.’ I said: ‘You mean I’ll need to do it again?! I’ve just scrapped it!’ It took me four months – because I kept changing it, and it got to the stage where I had to scrap it and start again, because he’s got such a complicated face and you’ve got to put an expression in.

“I had to do him. Why? Because of what’s happening with him at the moment, he was in my head so much and I felt for him so, so much. I know Billy and it was horrifying to read all that stuff about him – I couldn’t believe it – and then Robin Williams died, and to imagine how he would feel about that because they were like brothers… I just felt I had to paint him.”

Kidd first met Connolly in the late 1970s, at a party at the home of another much-loved Scottish jazz singer, Fionna Duncan. “I’ll never forget,” she says cackling. “He walked in the door with a great big long fur coat on, and the first thing he did was he took off the fur coat, threw it in the corner, and said: ‘Stay Rover!’ And I thought who is this man? We got on like a house on fire. He was so funny.”

While she’s back in Glasgow, Kidd has three duo concerts with top pianist Brian Kellock, with whom she recorded a live album last summer – but her chat today is all about her love of painting. Does she feel more excited about the art stuff than singing these days?

“No. No, definitely not. I’ll tell you what, I feel very, very lucky that at the age I’m at now I have something to fall back on, if it gets to the stage where I can’t sing any more – you know, if I can’t sing the way that’s good enough for my standards – then I would have to give it up. I couldn’t do a Frank Sinatra thing and just keep going on and on and on. So I feel really lucky that I’ve got this other string to my bow, and it’s something that can go on without the stress of going and doing concerts – although I don’t want to give up singing. I’ll keep going till I know it’s time to stop.”

* Carol Kidd’s paintings will be exhibited at iota, Unlimited Studios, Hyndland Street, Glasgow on October 24th & 25th from 12-6pm; Carol Kidd & Brian Kellock perform at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh on October 30th, at Wild Cabaret, Glasgow on November 2nd and at The Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock on November 9th. Their new CD, Carol Kidd Live With Brian Kellock Present Cole Porter will be released on October 23rd.

First published in Scotland on Sunday, October 19th

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Review: Curtis Stigers, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Curtis Stigers, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Thursday October 9th ***

On Thursday, the versatile American singer Curtis Stigers returned to Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall for the first time since March 2012 – but it was a different show to the string of duo concerts he has given in the more intimate venue of the city’s Dirty Martini club in the intervening two and a half years, or this year’s full band gigs in Ronnie Scott’s in London. The cosy, confessorial chat and witty banter of the smaller venue concerts were less in evidence, but Stigers made the most of having his quartet onstage with him to ramp up the energy and the volume – with not altogether pleasing results for some of the audience.

Stigers is a terrific live performer, very personable and a great storyteller – in speech and song. He doesn’t coast; he invariably packs an emotional punch with his often gut-wrenching delivery of lyrics. But, for much of Thursday’s show, it was nigh-on impossible to hang on his every word, as one would usually. Why? Because every other word was obliterated by overpowering drums and bass. Not only that but – to further distract the would-be (and usually) rapt listener – the wooden pews in the “good seats” near the sound desk were shaken whenever the bass and drums were over-loud. Oh, and there was also a near punch-up in the stalls between a heckler and his own heckler.

None of this is any reflection on the musicians, but it certainly marked the concert out as considerably less of a treat than expected.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday October 13th

I

I Keep Goin’ Back to Joe’s

I Don’t Wanna Talk About It Now

That’s All

You’re All That Matters To Me

Hooray For Love

Valentine’s Day

Things Have Changed

II

Love Is Here To Stay

You’ve Got the Fever

The Way You Look Tonight

My Babe

I Wonder Why

Jealous Guy

You Don’t Know What Love Is

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Songs for Soppy Cynics (and Swinging Lovers)

CurtisCurtis Stigers wears his heart on his record sleeve. The versatile American singer who, two years ago, released his darkest album to date – a collection, as he put it, “of sad songs or songs about sex” – has gone to the other extreme with his new CD Hooray for Love, an all-out, old-fashioned celebration of romance. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking “Ooh, Curtis must be happy” as soon as I saw the the title of the new album – so is the Stigers who comes to Edinburgh indeed as happy and loved-up as the record suggests?

“Well, yeah,” say Stigers who, for all his drawl speaks ten to the dozen. “That was the whole idea. I set out to make an album that mirrored where I am as a person as well as the last record mirrored where I was when I made it. And that record was obviously f***ing depressed.  And so I felt like it was time both for me and my fans for the antidote so I went looking for ten beautiful love songs. I really wanted to make an album of love songs; an album that was just unabashedly, unapologetically romantic.

Whereas Let’s Go Out, the previous CD, featured contemporary singer-songwriter material, this new album comprises swinging, jazz takes of classics from the Great American Songbook alongside some original songs which sound as if they might also have been written in the same era. “I threw out a lot of the rules I had made for myself, like ‘Don’t record songs that have been recorded a million times’ and ‘Never record a song that Sinatra is known for’.”

Stigers’s joyful experiences singing with the John Wilson Orchestra in the landmark 2010 MGM prom and subsequent movie-themed concerts inspired the inclusion of the a couple of the songs – Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight (“the sweetest and, I think, one of the smartest love songs ever written”) and the Gershwins’ Love is Here To Stay.  Performed in a catchy, loose, simple arrangement reminiscent of small-group, 1950s jazz recordings featuring the likes of Harry “Sweets” Edison and Ben Webster, it’s the opening track, and it sets the intimate, laid-back mood of the album. “Ah,” agrees Stigers, “that era is definitely what we were going for, and one of the two or three albums that we really looked at and I kept at the back of my mind was the After Midnight sessions with Nat ‘King’ Cole – that has Sweets on it. It was Nat basically coming back to the small group, swinging sort of thing that he had stepped away from to become a pop star.”

“It seemed like the thing to do – to take a step back towards happy and towards a little more, I guess, of a mainstream jazz approach. As well as the King Cole album, I was thinking about those early Doris Day records before she got too pop, too cute and smarmy; those great pop records from the 1950s where it was fantastic jazz musicians playing great songs with a great singer, and there were solos but they weren’t long solos. That was the other thing: I really wanted to pay attention to the song first, and whilst there are some solos, I really stood on my musicians; I was grinding my heel into them as they were playing, saying: ‘No – simpler!’, ‘No – closer to the melody!’, ‘Let the song do the work!’ ”

It’s not only the mood and material of Hooray for Love which are reminiscent of those earlier albums; the sound evokes that era as well. Stigers explains: “When I mixed the record I really tried to not go for modern hi fidelity but go for more of an old-fashioned fidelity. There’s a difference between the way jazz records sounded in the 1950s to the way they sound now. I didn’t want it to sound retro; I just wanted it to sound cosier and more intimate. Jazz records these days you can hear the drums so well. You can hear every texture of the drums… I don’t really give-a-damn what the drums sound like – I want them to keep the beat; that’s what drums do. And I could be thrown in jazz guy prison for saying that but the truth is that’s not the issue with an album with a singer and great songs. The issue is the great songs and the voicings – and everything else is there to support that. So that’s what we were really going for.”

The mood really couldn’t be more of a contrast to the last record or the repertoire we’ve heard in Stigers concerts in recent years: he’s gone from the cynical to the soppy. He’s come out of a painful divorce and found a new love, and he can’t hide his delight. Even the title Hooray for Love came from the sign-off on an email from a friend congratulating him on his new romance. Thankfully, his performance at Ronnie Scott’s earlier this year showed he hasn’t completely sold out on his fellow cynics – he still sang Dylan’s Things Have Changed and other songs from the last album.

Chuckling, Stigers points out: “I’m still cynical. The fact that I’m a romantic is the reason that my cynicsm is so thick. Let me explain that. I think because I open my heart – as the song says ‘I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast’. And that’s who I am. I believe in love, I believe in romance. And when you get your heart stomped on, as an open-hearted romantic, it’s pretty easy to take on a defensive edge. But underneath it all, I love love songs and I love love. So this was my chance to show the non-cynical side.”

And just to highlight the fact that the sad cynic is still there, he has concluded the album with You Don’t Know What Love Is, the bleak, Chet Baker-associated ballad which has been a bit of a showstopper at Stigers gigs in recent years.  “I just couldn’t help myself! It’s a love song but it’s a dark song. It’s a song about love that one way or another can’t be fulfilled. It’s a sad song. It also seemed like that sort of cautionary tale at the end, you know? Love, love, love, love, love – but don’t forget what might happen!”

* Curtis Stigers plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on October 9. Hooray for Love (Concord Records) is out now. For tour dates visit www.curtisstigers.com

First published in The Herald, Friday October 3, 2014

 

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Review: Tony Bennett, Glasgow, 2014

Tony Bennett, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, September 9th, 2014 *****

“We’ll have what he’s having” was undoubtedly what was going through the minds of the adoring punters who packed out the Concert Hall on Tuesday night to witness living legend Tony Bennett strut his singing stuff at the age of 88.

Anyone who didn’t hear him on the same stage two years ago might have expected that this concert would be one of those senior citizen specials in which much of the applause after each song is actually a reward for making it through to the end without keeling over. With Tony Bennett, the standing ovations that routinely followed his often energetic – the Tony twirl is undoubtedly his signature move – performances were purely down to the extraordinary affection that the audience has for him and the fact that he is still singing wonderfully.

Of course, great care has been taken in the way the programme (almost identical to 2012’s) has been constructed, and Bennett is adept at pacing himself. On songs, such as Maybe Next Time, which are going to have a big, belted-out finale (and boy, can Bennett still belt them out), he holds back for most of the number before socking it to his stunned listeners.

Dazzling as those grand finales were; on Tuesday it was the quieter, more intimate songs which were the most memorable; in particular Once Upon a Time, a ballad which is perfect and poignant for a singer of his age to be performing, and one which highlighted the fact that he is a poet with song: his reverence for the lyrics – the words and their meaning – enable him to paint a picture and tell a story in a way that many singers fail miserably to do.

* First published in The Herald, Thursday September 11th, 2014

Watch What Happens

They All Laughed

Maybe This Time

I Got Rhythm

Cold, Cold Heart

Sing You Sinners

Steppin’ Out With My Baby

But Beautiful

The Way You Look Tonight

Just in Time

Boulevard of Broken Dreams

The Good Life

Once Upon a Time

Shadow of Your Smile

One For My Baby

For Once In My Life

The Best Is Yet To Come

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

I’m Old-Fashioned

Who Cares?

Smile

When You’re Smiling

Fly Me To the Moon

 

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Tony Bennett: The Great Life

Tony Bennett PR shot 1The last time Tony Bennett performed in Glasgow, two years ago, he was already well into his eighties but, over the course of a non-stop 75 minute performance, he positively romped through a programme of no fewer than 26 songs, without pausing for anything more than the briefest chat and acknowledgement of the massive outpouring of affection for him from the packed Concert Hall. The longer he was onstage, and the more he sang, the more animated he became – and it seemed that the enthusiastic response from the audience was fuelling his staggeringly lively performance.

But it seems that there is more to it than that. Bennett, who is now 88 and set to return to the Concert Hall next week, is not so much driven by the need for applause as he is by the desire to entertain, and by his own enormous pleasure in singing. He explains: “I love doing it, and I like to try to make people feel good. It’s always very enjoyable to me leaving the theatre knowing that I made people feel good.”

And it’s not just to his audience that Bennett feels a sense of responsibility; as the oldest popular singer on the block – and the one whose career stretches back over an incredible six decades – he regards himself as a custodian of the Great American Songbook. After all, there can only be a handful of singers still around who have direct links with the original contributors to that body of work, and such original exponents of it as Bennett’s hero, Fred Astaire. Does Bennett feel a sense of responsibility to these songs?

“Yes, I do because the United States in the 1930s had a renaissance period very similar to what happened in France with Impressionism, with Monet, and musically with Ravel and Debussy. It was the beginning of talkies in films so they grabbed Fred Astaire off the stage and put him in films and they hired George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter to write the songs. These songs are gorgeous, they never become dated because they’re so well-written. I travel the world and wherever I go, people start to sing them back at me – they’re known internationally.”

Bennett first heard many of them – including the one he cites as his personal favourite, Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are (“I just adore that song”) – as a youngster growing up in the Queens borough of New York. Before he discovered this homegrown American music, however, it was his father’s Caruso records which introduced him to the art of singing, and in particular to the “bel canto” style, which explains his graceful way with a song and his elegant phrasing.

“My father adored opera and had a reputation himself as a singer. I was told that he would sing on the top of a mountain in Calabria and the whole valley would hear him. This inspired my older brother and myself – and we both became singers. My brother was very successful – at age 14 he was hired by the Metropolitan Opera House. So he was called Little Caruso. Of course I became a bit envious so I just became interested in jazz and started improvising.”

Asked who his first inspiration as a singer was, Bennett instantly names Louis Armstrong who, like him, enjoyed success as both a jazz and a popular artist and who effectively invented jazz singing. That the pair became great friends is perhaps no surprise given that they seem to share the same outlook about entertaining an audience and living life to the full. Bennett says: “His whole life he just wanted to make people feel good and have fun. He loved what he was doing so much that it never became old-fashioned. Just listen to him playing on a Hot 5 record. If you listen to the musicians playing behind him, it does sound a little dated but when Louis comes in on trumpet or singing it sounds like right now.”

Speaking to Tony Bennett, it’s impossible not to be struck by his delight in discussing jazz – his first musical love – and its characters. On Duke Ellington: “He was a complete genius, unbelievable. He just performed every night. I knew him at least the last 30 years of his life and there wasn’t a day that he didn’t compose some music – even when they were on tour doing one-nighters and he was travelling 150 miles a day, he would have the orchestra try something that he might want to put into his composition.”

On John Bunch, the much-loved pianist, and former music director to Bennett, who was a regular visitor to Scotland’s jazz festivals until his death in 2010 : “Gentleman John Bunch. I loved him so much. He was the most wonderful person. In fact, I’ll tell you a cute story .. He asked me one time when we were in London: ‘Did you ever play tennis?’ I said ‘no.’ He said: ‘Would you like me to give you a lesson?’ I said ‘okay.’ So he took me out to a stadium to play at the net and he showed me how to hit the ball over the net and all that sort of thing. Later on I found out that we had been playing at Wimbledon! I’ve been working down ever since then…”

Billie Holiday (“a sweet, beautiful, sophisticated lady”) was a particular favourite – and Bennett, who first topped the charts in 1950, was lucky enough to meet her. “Duke Ellington had a show at a nightclub in New York and I went to see it. Billie Holiday was there too. It was the days when there was an awful lot of prejudice. She said: ‘C’mon Tony, let’s go uptown and have a jam session.’ The people I was with kind of indicated to me ‘don’t go up there – it’s dangerous,’ you know? I regret it to this day.”

Bennett may be embarrassed about that episode but it was exceptional, since he was an active supporter of and participant in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, responding to the call to arms from his friends Martin Luther King and Harry Belafonte. His own life hadn’t been without struggle, and the other overwhelmingly striking thing about a conversation with him is how lucky he feels to have had the life he’s had, making a living doing something he loves, and how – even now, nearly 60 years after his initial success – he still counts his blessings.

“After my father died [when he was ten years old], my Italian family would come over every Sunday and my brother, sister and I would entertain them. They told me that I sang very well and that they liked my paintings of flowers. They created a passion in my life to just sing and paint, and I’ve gotten away with it – I’ve never really worked a day in my life. I just enjoy what I do.”

Asked if he escaped into his music when times were tough, Bennett explains that it wasn’t merely a form of distraction; it was a practical escape route out of poverty. “I went into showbusiness to stop my mother from working – she was making a penny a dress sewing in a sweat shop to put food on the table for her children. I was able to accomplish that with my first couple of hit records – I was able to send my mom out into the suburbs into beautiful nature.”

Tony Bennett - Concert Hall steps

Tony Bennett on the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1995 (c) Herald & Times Group

The adult Bennett has had his fair share of professional frustrations and personal problems – and for a while he was, to paraphrase one of his early signature songs, “lost, his losing dice was tossed, his bridges all were crossed, nowhere to go.” A period out of the pop limelight in the 1970s produced some jazz albums – notably of duets with pianist Bill Evans and, most sublimely, his two volumes of the
Rodgers & Hart Songbook with the Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet; intimate, cult recordings which are among the very best vocal works in all jazz and which highlight Bennett’s admiration and respect for the some of the most eloquent lyrics in the Great American Songbook..

Relaunching his career in the late 1980s, performing on MTV, and duetting with young pop stars – most recently Lady Gaga – has brought him to new audiences. But best of all, his later success has allowed him to be exactly the kind of singer he wants to be – singing jazz with his quartet and creating an intimate atmosphere even in the largest venue. “I like working that way,” he says. “To clarify my whole premise: I don’t want to be the biggest. I’d rather be one of the best.” Mission accomplished, I reckon.

* Tony Bennett performs at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday, September 9th.

* First published in The Herald, Saturday August 30th

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Edinburgh Fringe 2014: Joe Stilgoe – Songs on Film

Joe Stilgoe: Songs on Film, Assembly Checkpoint, until August 22nd *****

Singer-pianist Joe Stilgoe’s Songs on Film show can be summed up in a two-word review: “sheer joy”. Why? Because it lifts the spirits, puts a smile on the face and sends you out with one of your favourite film melodies ringing in your ears. I’d say it would make you forget the frightful weather outside if you should see it during an Edinburgh monsoon, but the opposite is actually true since the first section of the hour-long show celebrates rain on film – whether in one of Stilgoe’s entertaining monologues or musically, with his trio’s lovely, gently swinging take on Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.

When Stilgoe came to Edinburgh for the first time with his own show, three years ago, it was a solo performance – but even then he had props. Back then, those amounted to a white board with a series of diagrams and pie charts clipped to them. Now, for his Fringe version of the Songs on Film concert which he brought to the Fife Jazz Festival earlier this year, he has all manner of props, from the black umbrellas which are lowered to just above the heads of the (hopefully not superstitious) trio to the Pixar-inspired lamp which appears on the piano for Stilgoe’s touching homage to that studio’s musical output later in the show.

And this is indeed a show rather than a concert. Stilgoe is more than a singer-pianist with a witty repartee; he is a showman and one with terrific, natural, rapport with all age groups in the audience. The stylish props and lighting enhance what would otherwise still be a hugely enjoyable class act. Among the musical highlights are the seldom performed Arthur’s Theme, an exuberant Almost Like Being in Love, a spontaneously composed (if not combusted) medley of themes suggested by the audience, the bittersweet waltz from Up and an unforgettable It Had To Be You, performed sans piano, with harmonies sung by bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Ben Reynolds as the latter plays his brushes on the side of the double bass.

First published in The Scotsman on Friday August 15th

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Edinburgh Fringe 2014: Little Jazz Bird

Little Jazz Bird, The Jazz Bar (until August 24th) **

Nerves and whisky may have got the better of Victoria Bennett at her opening performance on this year’s Fringe, but luckily, the local singer has an endearing personality, a swinging band and a voice which is often quite lovely. The problem is that in most songs, it sounds as if there is more than one voice in there trying to get out: one with a transatlantic accent, one with a thick Scottish one (especially on the last word in many of the lines of songs), one whose deep, throaty sound evokes Marlene Dietrich and another which is more girlish. Confused? You will be.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday August 11th

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