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Poetry and Jazz and a Soupcon of Led Zeppelin by Esther Bennett at Spice of Life

There were three notable firsts for this reviewer at Esther Bennett’s Spice of Life gig on 16th February. It was the first time I’ve ever noticed a Muslim woman in a headscarf at a jazz gig – may this portend the start of a new trend! Also the first time I’ve heard a poetry rendition at live jazz, although this is not new, of course, Patricia Barber in particular draws on the poetry of e.e. cummings on her album Modern Cool;  poetry and jazz complement each other like chilli and pasta. Esther’s poetry though is her own creation. And it’s the first time I’ve ever heard a song associated with Led Zeppelin performed at jazz concert – special guest John Hogg added contrast to one of the spoken word pieces, “My Birmingham” with a dynamic rendition of “Communication Breakdown”, performed on a well-used, with much of the varnish stripped away by his vigorous strumming, semi-acoustic Takamine guitar that, given its condition, must be a particular favourite of his. Hearing this made me want to locate my dusty copy of Led Zeppelin’s first album and give it a spin down memory lane.            

Esther Bennett doesn’t hold anything back onstage – was it my imagination that during her rendition of the “The Maintenance Fitter”, a tribute to her Dad as he entered palliative care, that she seemed to be tearing up? A Jazzwise critic who referred to her “smokily appealing lower register”, quoted on her wonderful website, really nailed her vocal timbre. A particular highlight was her pairing of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life with Amy Winehouse’s “Love is a losing game”, both of equivalent stature as unassailable classics in her view.  “Wandering Lost” is particularly apposite given Spice of Life’s location in the heart of Soho. “When we make love I mean it for real/if you are only having fun/ end it before it’s begun/I don’t wanna be/wandering lost”. And her song Please (Save Me), a somewhat bittersweet account of a jazz life which name checks jazz clubs such as Spice and Ronnie’s and in which one of the voices seems to be an internalised voice of a parent, suggests that her parents’ response to her proclivities for jazz were not always all sweetness and light. “Despite everything you told me/I insisted that I always knew best”.   

Esther Bennett generously apportions credit to the members of her classic jazz trio, providing support and textures underpinning her vocals. Long-term collaborator Terence Collie was consistently delightful with his deft melodic touch on piano,  double bassist Richard Sadler provided a sumptuous and empathetic underpinning with his plump tones, and Steve Taylor on drums is clearly a particular favourite of hers and was afforded several opportunities to shine. 

A feature of her performance was her sparky engagement with the audience; she’s the antithesis of the jazz performer who turns his back on the audience so as to lose himself in the performance (Miles was far from the only one; Pat Martino for one did not talk a lot either). The show spans the gauntlet of emotions from reflective to raunchy; all the while her pitch perfect singing never wavers. Her own compositions are consistently strong, and in her voice she possesses a most remarkable instrument.     

Graham Boyd

22 Feb. 23