Wendy Nieper (vocals) with Roland Perrin (piano), Denys Baptiste (tenor saxophone), Neville Malcolm (double bass) & Michel Castellanos (drums)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 16 March, 2011
Venue: Jazz at Pizza Express, Dean Street, London
Singers who move into Classical territory are not uncommon, but Classical singers who make it in the jazz world are something else again. Wendy Nieper has been building a reputation in both fields since her student days and, as this show made plain, the Classically-trained singer and also one-time member of the reformed Swingle Singers – who made the best recent version of Berio’s Sinfonia (DG) – is equally at home in jazz. Ostensibly a promotional gig for her album First Flight, released on the enterprising First Hand Records label, was a showcase for singing that moved between the old and new with easy conviction.
The selection was well chosen to illustrate Nieper’s stylistic range, as well as the strengths of a backing group that featured the rock-steady bass-playing of Neville Malcolm, the inventive drumming of Michel Castellanos and the all-round pianism of Roland Perrin, with Denys Baptiste as a scintillating tenor saxophonist. Eight numbers were from the First Flight album, interspersed with standards that made for a balanced yet unpredictable set.
The first half got off to a lively start with the nonchalance of the Nieper/Perrin song “What’ll it be?”, followed by the limpid pathos of their “Solomente” (made more so by lyrics adapted from the verse of Pablo Neruda) and cool sensuality of Damien Rice’s “Blowers Daughter”. A further Nieper/Perrin collaboration, “Empty Beach” is a highlight of the album and its wistful eloquence was equally to the fore on this occasion – not least with sax-playing from Baptiste such as more than made up for the absence of Digby Fairweather’s trumpet on the recording – while the breezy overhaul given to Joni Mitchell’s “Dry Cleaner” saw Nieper and Baptiste trading exchanges with impunity. The soulful tones of the Wood/Mellin number “My One and Only Love” made a potent contrast to the deadpan humour of James Taylor’s “Mean Old Man” to bring about the deftest of closes.
The second half got going with the trio briefly assuming centre-stage for Perrin’s lively “Child’s Play”, Nieper then returning with a further two Perrin numbers – the ethereal ballad “Persuasion” and the nimble scat (every note hit dead centre!) of “Retrospective Waltz”. Billie Holiday’s immortal “God Bless the Child” brought Nieper and Malcolm together in thoughtful accord, before the Bernier/Simon number “Poinciana” lightened the mood with some engaging extemporization from all concerned. There was time for an encore, with the indelible samba groove of the Don Raye standard “I’ll Remember April” seeing the set through to its effervescent finale.
If Nieper was nervous before her first solo gig in London, it was not apparent as she cajoled a lively response from her ensemble, urged on by the capacity audience. No doubt she will be returning to Dean Street in the near future, by which time her versatile and highly recommended debut album ought to have established her in the front rank of contemporary jazz vocalists. A star in the making? On the basis of this evening, don’t doubt it.