Cellist Shirley Smart has helped extend the number of unusual instruments that find a home in jazz, but she draws on a wider inspiration, as her trio’s visit to Abergavenny illustrated.
Although the musical influences of Smart and her trio sweep eastwards from North Africa to the Levantine Middle East, her encore at this sold-out gig for Black Mountain Jazz was the standard All Of Me.
That 1931 song by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons is a love-drenched pick-me-up, written in the Depression with other antidotes to gloom, such as Night And Day, Red Sails In The Sunset, and Embraceable You, penned by other hands.
The link between the geography of Smart’s determinants and the history from which they spring – in this case still unfolding in the horror and carnage of Gaza and Israel – could not have been lost on the audience.
John Crawford, Shirley Smart, Demi Garcia Sabat.
Image by Monika S Jakobowska.
After the evocative Zrika (Hebrew for ‘Sunrise’) had reached its twin climaxes as celebrations of dance, Smart dedicated the performance to the hope of peace in the region, a response applauded warmly by the audience.
The Smart trio – herself, pianist John Crawford at the trusty BMJ upright, and drummer/percussionist Demi Garcia Sabat – was a minor miracle of integrity for an ensemble that in theory might have faced insurmountable difficulties. But it worked swimmingly as a jazz outfit exploring other genres on its own terms.
Crawford’s style connected with both percussive and lyrical jazz piano influences; Sabat’s conventional kit was garlanded with bells and beads and its bass drum was complemented by the cajón, with everything sometimes played by hand sans brushes and sticks; and Smart’s virtuosic handling of her instrument allowed its deep tenor glow to erupt in colourful harmonics and glissandi and jazz-inflected phrasing.
Smart’s advocacy of the cello as a jazz instrument is worth noting as much for its rarity as its success. Sitting between the double bass and the violin in tone and range, it might lack the former’s booming depths and the latter’s sunny brilliance, but Smart gives it a convincing go. (The viola, described by the critic Diana McVeagh as ‘that melancholy dreamer’, has yet to make a play in jazz.) And, to use a cliché, she can ‘swing’.
When Crawford was taking a solo she could undertake the double bass’s pizzicato as well as enjoin the piano contrapuntally, as in the witty Sambuca, which, like some of the other charts, built to a tumult – just three instruments, remember.
Smart lived in Jerusalem for ten years and was a Classical performer. Ticaraca Tchoub derived from Algerian café music and for her had a vivid provenance involving the Mafia and playing Schubert trios. The jazzy Tetouan paid homage to the Moroccan city of that name and included a long andabsorbing solo for Sabat; Balkan Tune was the result of listening to something catchy on the car radio, possibly of Greek or Macedonian origin; and Longing, with its tricky time signature based on an Arabic rhythm and demonstrated to the audience with hand claps, was the longest item on the programme and incorporated a broad cello melody as only a cellist with a Classical background could play it.
East recalled West in the Peter Michaels composition Logan Kismet, based on a conventional Western rondo, and embraced it entirely in Mobius Blues with its foregrounded Sabat brushwork; also in the long-breathed Opals, against a rocking motion in the piano; and in the artfully constructed Waltz For An Amethyst, inspired by the French jazz accordionist Richard Galliano. Halfquine was a mournfully modal journey in which Smart enjoined broad arco and tripping pizzicato as equal elements. Saba (Arabic for ‘Good morning’) opened proceedings in a neat transposition to ‘Good evening’.
If few other cellists have made Smart’s move into jazz and world music, her example shines as a beacon of encouragement. Beneath its topographical specifics is an undercurrent flowing from rock- steady jazz traditions.
Main image by Kasia Ociepa
Nigel Jarrett is a Welsh writer and critic. His latest story collection, Five Go To Switzerland (Cockatrice Books), appeared last year, as did his fictional memoir, Notes From the Superhorse Stable, published by Saron Publishers. His second poetry collection, Gwyriad, is due in the New Year from Cockatrice.