Sara Colman ‘What We’re Made Of’ CD (Stoney Lane) 5/5

They say good things come to those who wait. For Bristol-born singer, songwriter, pianist and composer Sara Colman, this would appear to be especially true. Her new album “What we’re made of” is released this month on Stoney Lane Records, proving once and for all that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Ten years have passed since Colman’s last album “Ready”, with another ten years dating back to her 1998 debut “Spellbound”. Let’s hope she breaks this pattern sooner rather than later…

Unlike Colman’s previous releases which were largely standards and covers, “What we’re made of” is largely originals and co-written material. Audiences familiar with her musical path, whether that be via her vocal performances up and down the land in jazz clubs and other music venues, or through her work with the likes of Laura Mvula, Liane Carroll and Mahalia, may have shared at one point or another, the same thought. That thought being that her genuine natural warmth, passion and charisma shining out from her live performances has, for whatever reason, never really been captured on a studio album. Until now that is.

Given the fact that the album encompasses such a thoughtful and evocative set of tunes, I asked Colman if she had been encouraged to make a record that she loves, rather than worrying about what a label or general public might expect from a ‘jazz singer/composer’; “Yes, yes and yes!” was her reply. “I had a conversation with two musician friends and I was saying ‘Oh maybe I’ll make a duo album or just sit at the piano and sing…’ One replied well why don’t you go big instead!? So in the first instance I stopped putting limitations on myself before I had even started. I was talking with another musician friend about pleasing your audience and I asked her about the music she wrote and how she felt about it. She basically said that she wrote music that she wanted to play and it didn’t really matter to her whether anyone liked it as long as she did. What a revelation! That stayed with me for a long time and is my mantra before I start a writing session. It was something I needed to hear but didn’t realise until I heard it- so simple yet so true. I had forgotten how to get to the heart of my own creative musical self maybe? It’s also true that Sam at Stoney Lane stood right back and encouraged me to just make beautiful music- he trusted me and waited a long time for this album. It gives you confidence when someone else has confidence in you.”

Colman’s confidence certainly bears fruit on this recording. Inspired by her love of classic song-writing and instinctive improvisational energy, her musical journey brings her jazz sensibility into roots music territory, her poignant originals sitting comfortably alongside the folk-tinged worlds of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, to the contemporary jazz, folk and Americana of Bill Frisell.

There are also some key collaborators on this session, combining wonderfully with Colman to give an unprecedented warmth and intuitive balance to the finished tunes. Jonathan Silk’s contribution cannot be underestimated. His drumming is always sensitive to the nature of the music itself, but it is his string arrangements that really stand out for special mention. Many singer-songwriters fall into the trap of using string arrangements that are so over-used and clichéd that I find them bordering on embarrassing. Silk’s exquisite arrangements however, are fresh and inspiring, reminding me a little of the first time I listened to Nick Drake’s classic album Five Leaves Left, a breath of fresh air. Percy Pursglove sparkles on trumpet and flugelhorn. His playing quite simply exudes class. Guitarist Steve Banks co-writes some of the tunes with Colman, bringing a refreshing lilt to the singer’s writing style. In fact, all of the musicians perform in a way that is sensitive to, and enhances the music being made. With Rebecca Nash on piano and Rhodes, Ben Markland and Jules Jackson on bass, Adriano Adewale on percussion, the Carducci Quartet (strings) and the backing vocals of Emila Martensson and Anthony Marsden, the togetherness of the musicians is very apparent throughout the whole recording.

There is an integrity and inventiveness to Colman’s writing that shows a maturity and balance of thought. Great story-telling is a fine art, perhaps one that flows more naturally with more experience in life. “I guess I’ve been collecting snippets of stories for a little while, little character studies.” Colman told me. “As my experiences and my perspectives have changed, so those stories have become a little more fully formed- so I’ve been a bit more able to write from the perspective of someone else. I think what happens as you get a bit further down your own path is that you are less inside the drama of your own life.”

“What we’re made of” features eleven tunes, with the album’s exquisite opener “It Begins” featuring the captivating string arrangements of Silk, combining perfectly with Colman’s evocative vocal and Pursglove’s contemplative trumpet. It’s a beautiful piece of music. The title track has a poise to it that allows the tune to develop as it brings in subtle Brazilian vibes and textures featuring the percussion of Adewale. One of the most intriguing tracks on the album is “Strange Meeting”, originally a Bill Frisell instrumental. Whereas Frisell’s original sounds like it could have been taken from a Tom Waits ‘Swordfishtrombone’ era session, Colman’s thoughtful reworking of this now places it in Tom Waits ‘Blue Valentine’ territory. Colman’s lyrics trace a story of regret played out by a man who lost a woman who shone too brightly for him. Central is the lyric ‘Seren Haf’, ‘summer star’ in Welsh- the idea being that she would be eternally summer in her life and in his eyes, whilst he would go on to the autumn and winter of his own life. Captivating and enthralling story-telling. “Echoes” is a reflective piece, featuring Rebecca Nash on piano, with some emotive and poignant lyrics from Colman as she explains: “As the building was being demolished, my friend William died. We made a lot of music together in that building and each time another piece of it came away I imagined the echoes that had been absorbed into the walls flying out into the air with the dust.” The Colman/Banks collaboration “Heartsafe” works especially well; an immediately identifiable favourite. And isn’t it wonderful when a musician takes a well-known song and reinterprets it in a fresh and inspiring way. Such is the case here with the Paul Simon classic “Still crazy after all these years”.

One of the things I look for in a singer-songwriter is for their personality to reflect and shine through their music. The warmth that Colman exudes as a person resonates in her voice and character in the music and the lyrics that live and breath on this recording. I’ve listened to this album a few times now and I feel in some ways that I’m still getting to know it. Some of the tracks take a little longer than others to fully appreciate and I have a feeling that this is one of those albums that will definitely stand the test of time. A very accomplished album indeed. Full credit must also go out to Stoney Lane Records for providing the platform for Sara Colman to truly show what she’s made of.

Mike Gates

Sara Colman Key Autumn Dates:
November 10th – CBSO Centre, Birmingham. BOOK HERE
November 14th – The Pheasantry, Chelsea, London.