This is Joy Ellis’s second album as a leader coming a couple of years after the well-regarded Life on Land. Sadly I have missed her and the band when they have played Birmingham and judging from this album it’s my loss.
What is immediately apparent is the open and well recorded and mixed sound. There is a clarity which allows the individual instruments and Joy’s voice to shine while preserving a strong group aesthetic. And from the moment I heard Joy’s voice on the opening track ‘Daffodils’ it straight away put me in mind of a distinctly English style – clear with an emphasis on telling the story in the lyrics.
It reminded me of, for example, Jacqui Dankworth’s rendering of Housman poems on her album with New Perspectives from 20 or so years ago or her settings of William Blake. And that’s a real compliment – I have to say that British singers who affect a Stateside intonation do present me with a barrier to get past. But Joy is not a copyist and has her own unique and refreshing feel.
Joy was apparently classically trained which might go some way to explaining her approach. But she is a pianist first and on initial listening it is the tunes and the arrangements and the lovely playing that grabs your ears. The album mainly features her regular quartet with her piano, keys and voice supported by Rob Luft on guitar, Henrik Jensen on double bass and Adam Osmianski on drums. In addition, Ferg Ireland contributes electric bass on ‘Pollyanna’, ‘Family Tree’ and ‘Dwell’. On ‘One Minute in Manchester’, both bassists play.
Daffodils starts quietly with a lovely piano intro leading into Joy singing the verses and then Rob Luft with a well-constructed solo with Joy taking over on piano before she returns to vocals with a subtly different and more urgent delivery. This structure with the vocals being important but not over-shadowing the other instruments follows throughout the album.
Pollyanna has a choppy piano vamp while Joy sings. With Ferg Ireland on electric bass there is a different feel. He contributes a solid solo before well-considered ones from Luft, Joy and Osmianski. It’s the drummer who sets the tone for Family Tree with a quick and effective snare riff. With Joy on electric piano (I’m guessing Rhodes), Luft on lead style electric guitar and Ireland under-pinning on electric bass this has a funky feel.
There is plenty to enjoy on this recording with effective changes to the tonality and instruments used and the lyrics are well worth a careful listen for their own sake. ‘One Minute in Manchester’, for example, is a moving tribute to the victims of the Manchester bombing when Ellis took part in a minutes silence while in the city for a residency.
Joy Ellis is the leader but this really successful album is as good as it is because of the top levelling playing and teamwork from everybody involved.
14 December – Vortex Jazz Club