Sara Dowling Quintet – The George Shearing Project
(Bulls Head, 19 May 2018. Review by Sebastian Scotney)
Could this be a tipping-point for vocalist Sara Dowling? The buzz among musicians has been a constant for quite a while now. Guy Barker has said “her voice has all the qualities that you find in the great singers". The question I found myself asking after hearing her brand-new George Shearing show at the Bull’s Head on Saturday was this: how soon before it will become completely normal to think about her as one of the very best jazz singers this country has? One year? Two maybe? She really is quite exceptional; it feels like a case of when rather than if.
Dowling works immensely hard. She devises the programmes, does the arrangements, produces and delivers all the linking material between the songs. And all that obscures what one might consider the really important work she does, which is to get deep under the skin of every song she performs both musically and dramatically. Every word is crystal-clear, its meaning understood, absorbed. Every note, every musical phrase makes sense.
With a singer quite as musical as Dowling, perhaps there is a danger that the excellent can become all too unremarkable. Those serenely pitch-perfect landings, those gutsy scat choruses, those exquisitely shaped and flawless endings (there is one on this video of I’ve Got a Crush on You), one starts to take them for granted. Wrongly.
Another side to her enterprise and focus is in booking musicians she knows have not just the talent but also a genuine affinity for the music she wants to present. In her modest words to vibraphonist Nat Steele: “I stole your band." Nat Steele has a quartet which has made an album dedicated to the Modern Jazz Quartet, and toured it, and these were the four musicians who formed Dowling's band on Saturday. Pianist Gabriel Latchin is ideal for this repertoire, knowing exactly how to say what needs to be said in just one chorus, bassist Dario Di Lecce is a top flight player who works with singers such as Anita Wardell, and Steve Brown on drums is not just an impeccable player, he is one of the most supportive, positive and joyous presences in British jazz.
And all those influences feed back into Sara Dowling’s performance. Despite the fact that quite a bit of the Shearing repertoire – this show majors in the songs from the Shearing/Nancy Wilson album The Swingin’s Mutual – may have been relatively unfamiliar, Dowling and her band didn’t put a foot wrong all evening. There was always a sense of enjoyment, involvement, wanting to take risks. And there were also moments when one can see where all her focused and dedicated work has led to and will continue to, moments of complete transcendence, times when one isn’t just thinking "this is good" (like all the time), but when something truly astonishing is happening. Here are two from many.
Her performance of My Foolish Heart, as a duo with pianist Gabriel Latchin showed how a whole structure can appear to unfold naturally, but is clearly the result of knowing every possible wrinkle of the song. The coup de grâce was a hushed ending, progressively slowing the pulse right down, but it wasn’t just an astonishing technical feat it was more: it elucidated and underlined the (apparent) emotional certainty of the closing words, "It's love / This time it's love / My foolish heart".
Another master-stroke was the encore, Lorenz/Hart’s Mountain Greenery in which she took her time with the verse, dwelling languidly on every tricky phrase: “In the city’s dust you wait / Just you wait / Must you wait?”, only to set the chorus into rip-roaring motion. It was a completely joyous way to end a special evening.
Sara Dowling also has a Jerome Kern project The Life & Times of Jerome Kern which will be premiered on Sunday 3 June at the 606 Club.
A new album Two Sides of Sara featuring Dowling performing in two different duos – one with organist Bill Mudge the other with pianist Gabriel Latchin – is in preparation.