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Janet Seidel Obituary

Janet Seidel, who has died in Sydney at the age of 62, was a much-loved singer and pianist christened “First Lady of Jazz” by critics in her native Australia where she was regarded as something of an institution and a figurehead of the jazz scene there. A regular visitor to Scotland in recent years, she made many friends and won many admirers with her gently swinging musical style, her soft, breathy vocals and her warm and charismatic personality.
 
Indeed, one of the most memorable aspects of Seidel’s 2011 trio concert at Glasgow’s Recital Room was the way she established an instant rapport with the audience – a skill undoubtedly honed through years working in piano-bars early on in her career.
 
Todd Gordon, the Scottish jazz singer, radio presenter and concert promoter who twice brought Seidel to Glasgow, points out that she actually had a knack for charming the audience before she was fully installed at the piano. “She would win them over in about five seconds by just quietly and unassumingly sliding onto the piano stool while beaming that warm smile.” 
 
The same thing had happened at the Lyth Arts Centre, in Caithness, where Seidel became a regular visitor after being booked by the venue’s director William Wilson for her Scottish debut in 2005. He adds: “As she slid onto the piano stool, she hit the first chord and sang the first note right on pitch – no looking at the keyboard or adjusting the mike – it demonstrated consummate musical professionalism and stagecraft.”
 
Born in 1955 and raised on a dairy farm near Adelaide, Seidel only discovered her singing voice thanks to the LP of the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, starring Julie Andrews, which she listened to every time she carried out her weekly chore – of doing her family’s ironing. With four brothers, there were a lot of shirts to iron and Seidel soon knew that famous  Lerner and Loewe score inside out – so when her school announced plans to stage My Fair Lady, she knew she had to overcome her natural shyness and audition for the part of Eliza Doolittle.
 
Having studied piano from an early age, Seidel read classical music at university in Adelaide. While she was a student there, she formed a band with two of her brothers and they played at country dances and local gigs. “We did everything from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo to Suzi Quatro songs,” she said in 2011. She was still working with one of her brothers, bass playing David Seidel, in recent years – he, along with her partner Chuck Morgan, who plays guitar – was part of the trio which came to Scotland several times, most recently last October.
 
During Seidel’s university years, piano bars became popular – and proved to be a lucrative way of subsidising student life, though it took a bit of getting used to, especially for someone accustomed to having her brothers accompanying her and being surrounded by friends. For the solo gig, Seidel had to learn how to interact with strangers. She later said: “The idea of the piano bar is that people come in and sit around the piano bar and want to talk to you. It really was a baptism of fire but it served me well. Back then, you could get work anywhere in the world just playing piano and singing.”
 
To begin with, she played poppier material – Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and Carole King were her favourite songwriters – but she soon graduated on to the Great American Songbook and thereafter stuck with it.
 
It was while she was still at school that Seidel first heard jazz – on the radio. She was particularly taken with the singer-pianists Nat “King” Cole and Blossom Dearie. Both proved highly influential – but the girlish-sounding Dearie especially so. The jazz writer Whitney Balliett once said of Dearie’s “tiny” voice that, without a microphone, “it wouldn’t reach the second floor of a doll’s house”.
 
During her student days, Seidel had the chance to see Dearie perform – and it proved to be a defining moment. “She came to Adelaide as the support artist for Stephane Grappelli who was on an Australian tour. She did a solo thing in the first half and it was just magical, you know – one of those spine-tingling moments.. I’d always been a bit ashamed of my voice – it wasn’t a huge operatic voice, and it wasn’t a big mama kind of belter. Then I heard Blossom’s fairy-like voice and I thought: ‘She’s so delicate and intimate, and still communicating that way without doing anything silly with her voice.’ And I loved the way she played piano.”
 
Listening to recordings by Julie London – Seidel loved her “caressing voice” – and Peggy Lee also helped shape Seidel’s soft and gentle style. “I read in a book that, before she became a star, Peggy was singing in a bar and there was a lot of loud noise. She decided that she would sing a bit more softly to see if it would quieten the crowd down, and it worked.”
 
Moving to Sydney in the 1980s, Seidel made a name for herself on the cabaret and jazz scenes and worked in education before launching her international career. She toured extensively and was especially popular in Japan. From 1994, she was a regular in the recording studio, and she leaves a legacy of 18 albums ranging from Comme Ci, Comme Ca – a celebration of French chansons – to her south seas-flavoured album Moon of Manakoora, which spent three months at the top of the jazz vocal charts in Japan (and subsequently won Best Jazz Vocal Album gong at the National Jazz Awards in Australia). 
 
Seidel also recorded some classy tributes to those singers who had inspired her, and although she was strongly associated with those stars, as Todd Gordon points out, “she had her own distinctive style and timbre.”
 
He adds:  “She will be sorely missed, especially by the army of fans she built up over her many years of touring the globe.” William Wilson says: “As Lyth was one of the first UK venues to discover Janet Seidel, we were always pleased to invite her back again, and were delighted to note that her recent UK tours stretched to over twenty venues, after starting out with just Lyth plus a couple of other places back in 2005. We are devastated to think we will never see her again.”
 
* Janet Seidel, jazz singer and pianist, born May 28 1955; died August 8 2017
* First published in The Herald, Wednesday August 30th
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Review: Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons, Glasgow

Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons,Recital Room, Glasgow, Saturday June 28th ****

It was impossible not to be charmed by the Twisted Toons concert at the Recital Room on Saturday evening. Not only is drummer Stu Brown an extremely engaging and amiable host, but his passion for Raymond Scott’s cultish compositions – which were used in dozens of classic Warner Bros cartoons as well as the more recent Ren and Stimpy animations – and the performances of them by a septet comprising A-list Scottish jazz musicians make an irresistible combination. That said, however, a little of the Scott repertoire goes a long way…

The opening numbers were highly enjoyable. Jungle Medley was a collection of pieces from Looney Tunes cartoons by Carl Stalling which segued into Scott’s swinging, vaguely early-Ellingtonian composition Dinner Time For a Pack of Hungry Cannibals and featured a superb hot clarinet solo by Martin Kershaw. Scott’s spooky Goblins in the Steeple was another gem, thanks to the terrific ensemble work and a stylish solo by trumpeter Tom MacNiven. The septet sound – of clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, violin, piano, bass and drums – on this number, the playful arrangement and the classy playing brought to mind some of the brilliant work of some of Marty Grosz’s modern-day small, 1920s-style, groups which blend zingy, witty arrangements with top drawer soloing.

Less appealing, however, were full-length cartoon scores – perhaps they would work better if accompanying a screening of the cartoons. The complete scores are too disjointed, and their jazz and tuneful elements too scattered to be satisfying listening on their own for the lay person.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday June 30th

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Review: Brass Jaw

Brass Jaw, Recital Room, City Halls, Glasgow, Sunday December 4 ****

You’ve got to hand it to Brass Jaw. This Glasgow-based jazz quartet is still in its infancy but it has already established itself as an award-winning outfit – and one which has a loyal following. Which would explain why the Recital Room was packed out on a particularly miserable Sunday night in December.

The Scottish jazz world’s answer to the Fab Four seemed determined to leave no listener unconverted: after kicking off with a slow and solemn Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas they exploded into life, like a New Orleans funeral band, with a freewheeling and dynamic take on Comin’ Home Baby, which not only created an instant party atmosphere but set out the template for the way this unique band works. Baritone saxophonist Allon Beauvoisin – a one-man rhythm section – is the glue that holds the sound together, while his bandmates, trumpeter Ryan Quigley and saxophonists Paul Towndrow and Konrad Wiszniewski, bring colour and theatricality to the proceedings – along with a hint of Marx Brothers-like mayhem.

On tune after tune – notably such funky numbers as Joe Zawinal’s Walk Tall and Horace Silver’s Senor Blues – in the first half of Sunday’s concert, it was impossible to resist the infectious joie-de-vivre emanating from this lively band. During the second set, a series of samey-sounding and occasionally rather turgid original compositions threatened to sap the party spirit but a joyous Sunny, played as an encore while the group snaked its way around the room, ensured that the night ended on a high.

* First published in The Scotsman, Tuesday December 6

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Australia’s First Lady of Jazz

Had it not been for Julie Andrews and a weekly pile of ironing, Janet Seidel, who is currently touring the UK, might not have become the renowned singer and pianist that she is. The glamorous fiftysomething given the title of  First Lady of Jazz  by critics in her native Australia only discovered her singing voice thanks to the LP of the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, which she listened to every time she carried out her weekly chore – of doing her family’s ironing.

“I’ve got four brothers – I was the only girl – and I used to listen to that record over and over again while I was ironing their shirts. So when my school said
they were going to stage My Fair Lady, I thought: ‘Gosh, I can sound exactly like Julie Andrews.’ So I auditioned and got the role, and I’m so grateful because that experience gave me the chance to conquer my shyness: I put the pancake make-up on and I became Eliza Doolittle, not Janet Seidel.”

Brought up on a dairy farm near Adelaide, Seidel had been playing piano from an early age and was regularly “shuffled out to play pieces for my granny”. Her natural shyness didn’t prevent her from playing piano but it took a while for her to sing as she played – after all, she had to be herself, not Eliza, in that context. “It was a leap of faith, really,” she says.

In her late teens and early twenties, while she was studying classical music at university in Adelaide, Seidel formed a band with two of her brothers. “We did everything from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo to Suzi Quatro songs. I had a keyboard and we’d play country dances and all sorts of gigs.” Even now, she still works with one of her brothers: David Seidel is the bass player in her current trio.

During Seidel’s university years, piano bars became all the rage – and proved to be a lucrative way of subsidising student life, though it took a bit of getting used to. Seidel explains: “I was so used to having my brothers there on guitar and bass, and to being surrounded by friends. For this solo gig, I had to expand my repertoire and learn how to interact with strangers – the idea of the piano bar is that people come in and sit around the piano bar and want to talk to you. It really was a baptism of fire but it served me well. Back then, you could get work anywhere in the world just playing piano and singing.”

To begin with, she played poppier material – Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and Carole King were her favourite songwriters – but she soon graduated on to the Great American Songbook and since then, it has interested her “almost exclusively”.

Seidel first heard jazz on the radio when she was still at school. “The ABC had a programme, Music to Midnight, which I used to listen to – and that’s how I first heard Nat ‘King’ Cole and Blossom Dearie.” Both of these great singer-pianists proved highly influential – but the girlish-sounding Dearie especially so. The jazz writer Whitney Balliett once said of her “tiny” voice that, without a microphone, “it wouldn’t reach the second floor of a doll’s house”.

During her student days, Seidel had the chance to see Dearie perform – and it proved to be a defining moment. “She came to Adelaide as the support artist for Stephane Grappelli who was on an Australian tour. She did a solo thing in the first half and it was just magical, you know – one of those spine-tingling moments.. I’d always been a bit ashamed of my voice – it wasn’t a huge operatic voice, and it wasn’t a big mama kind of belter. Then I heard Blossom’s fairy-like voice and I thought: ‘She’s so delicate and intimate, and still communicating that way without doing anything silly with her voice.’ And I loved the way she played piano.”

Peggy Lee’s recordings also helped shape Seidel’s soft and gentle style. “I read in a book that, before she became a star, Peggy was singing in a bar and there was a lot of loud noise. She decided that she would sing a bit more softly to see if it would quieten the crowd down, and it worked.”

Seidel toured Scotland a couple of years ago with a show of Blossom Dearie songs, but she’s not the only heroine to whom she has paid tribute: Doris Day is another favourite and she takes comparisons to Day as a great compliment. “She was a very tuneful and very swinging jazz singer – she really knew how to phrase and she had a lovely light lilting kind of approach to singing.”

Recently, Seidel was hired to sing a jingle for an Audi advert, to be broadcast on British television. For that, she was called upon to sing like Julie London – with whom she bears a strong vocal resemblance. “She was a big influence on me. I love that cool, unfussed style and the timbre of her voice – it’s a very caressing sound without being forced or deliberately sexy.”

A Julie London tribute may be the next obvious step, but for this tour, Seidel is celebrating Johnny Mercer’s songbook, including the ballad Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home – a song which would be apt for any jazz musician, let alone one who’s on an eight-month house-swap ….

* Janet Seidel Trio plays Recital Room, Glasgow on Thursday,  March 15, at 7.30pm. Call 0141 353 8000 or visit http://www.glasgowconcerthalls.com for tickets.

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Glasgow Jazz Festival: Warren Vache & Brian Kellock

Blimey, that’s it. I can die happy. I’ve just enjoyed the most sublime seventy minutes of my recent life.. thanks to American cornettist Warren Vache’s duo gig at the Glasgow Jazz Festival with the Scots piano wizard Brian Kellock.

This pair haven’t played together as a duo in almost a decade, which could explain why sparks flew during the concert, notably on a fast My Shining Hour and an equally speedy End of a Love Affair; both numbers distinguished by Kellock’s incendiary playing – outlandish, inventive and flamboyant. It acted as a touchpaper for Vache’s solos which were nothing short of dazzling, particularly on an unaccompanied section of End of a Love Affair.

However, it was the ballads that will live on in the collective memory. I’ll Be Seeing You (possibly the first live version of it that I’ve ever heard) was lifted first by Kellock, with his delicate, gentle and achingly lovely solo which was the essence of minimalism, and by Vache’s similarly poignant solo, an improvement on the original melody.

On a playful Tea for Two, the pair were so utterly in synch in their thinking and so complementary in their playing that it was difficult to believe that they hadn’t been playing it together for years. Mind you, that applied to all the tunes they played – though they wouldn’t have sounded as fresh and thrilling if they had been tried and tested.

The highlight of the evening was a heart-meltingly gorgeous interpretation of Irving Berlin’s ballad What’ll I Do? I have to confess that it was my request – and it exceeded expectations. Vache dished up the most beguiling and tender solo, and Kellock, in a supporting role, gave it the perfect setting. It truly was a thing of rare beauty – I just wish someone had recorded it.

Monday, July 4 

Over the weekend,  I was asked for some of the titles of numbers that were played on Thursday so I’ve decided to start publishing a complete list of tunes played at each concert I go to.

* You and the Night and the Music

* What’ll I Do? (request)

* Tea for Two

* My Shining Hour

* I’ll Be Seeing You

* End of a Love Affair

* The More I See You

* Body and Soul

* Skylark (request)

* blues

* We’ll Be Together Again

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A swell party

Daryl Sherman, the Manhattan-based singer and pianist who made her Glasgow debut in the City Halls Recital Room on Sunday, must have tripped back to her hotel a very happy lady. Why? Because she had the most enthusiastic response to her performance that I think I’ve seen at that venue.

Sherman has a girlish, Blossom Dearie-esque voice which is not every jazz fan’s cup of Earl Grey (it didn’t do anything for the aficionada sitting next to me – at least at the outset) , but she also has impeccable taste – which is a rare attribute these days.

Not only was her choice of material first-class but the atmosphere she created also distinguished her gig from most others. It was relaxed and fun, but there was no sense that the concert had been thrown together – as can often be the case when a visiting soloist throws his or her lot in with local musicians.

Mind you, Sherman had selected the ideal local musicians for her easygoing style and penchant for the less  well-thumbed pages of the Great American Songbook. She really couldn’t have asked for better accompaniment than she got from bassist Roy Percy and, especially, the great guitarist Nigel Clark – both of whom gamely, and stylishly, joined her on a string of songs which they had probably never had call to play before.

Flying Down to Rio (from the Astaire-Rogers movie of the same name), Getting To Know You (The King and I) and Jeepers Creepers (from Goin’ Places)  were all ensemble treats featuring Sherman’s vocal and pianistic talents.

On How Insensitive, she stepped into Carol Kidd’s shoes by duetting memorably with Nigel Clark. The results were sublime – Sherman’s vocals (which sounded deeper when she was singing in what I assume was Portuguese) and Clark’s sensitive guitar playing were a perfect match.

As were the vocal duets with guest artist Todd Gordon – playful versions of Fly Me to the Moon and Manhattan, both dished up with rarely-performed verses.

By the end of the night, Sherman had made herself more than a few new fans – and I think you could safely say she’ll be back.

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