The Singer's Tale
St James Studio, 9th February 2015
Large slices of British jazz history are disappearing. The music itself is documented, but the accounts of how it was made and the world for which it was performed are fading because they exist only in the frailest of formats – memory. So when an event like Carol Grimes’ The Singer’s Tale comes along, it forms an invaluable document.
For anyone who lived through the period from the early 60s on the London jazz scene, it will recall events, venues and people long gone, but which form ldquo;names to conjure with”, summoning up memories and recreating events and feelings with a that power goes way beyond nostalgia into reliving. For anyone who didn’t live through it, here is an account of the life of a talented but uneducated woman and mother who did not fit easily into musical categories. Documents on women in British Jazz and Rock – and of their treatment by the almost exclusively male scenes where they were often treated as props rather than musicians – are rare, and this sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious look at life is probably unique.
Born an unwanted, illegitimate, wartime baby in Lewisham, and put into care by her mother, Carol was in dead-end menial jobs when she found a life in jazz and singing and reinvented herself, including a new name. There’s a great scene when she tries to claim her pension and tries to explain having been known by four surnames. She recalls hippiedom, psychedelia at UFO and the Roundhouse, busking, motherhood, recording Country Rock in Nashville with the musical team who did Dylan’s Blond on Blond, alcohol abuse, riots at the Carnival, Rock against Racism and the first Glastonbury culminating in her return to her first love – Jazz. I particularly liked her account of touring Northern Ireland in the early 70s with roadies who owned a Japanese ex-school bus which just happened to be bright orange.
It’s a cabaret style performance that tells her story punctuated by versions of Carol’s superb original songs and her varied repertoire. She has a voice and range which encompasses blues shouts, Jazz ballads and Country and Western. The final number, Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes as the final number was a show-stopper in several senses: it traced the emotional journey of the show, her journey through a changing music scene and most of all showed her accomplishment as a jazz performer.
The band were also superb. Dorian Ford played great piano (especially on the N. African-tinged Alexandria Dances), and he also played a range of characters, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Robert Stigwood, from the keyboard by changing headgear. Annie Whitehead’s trombone role ranged from soloist to accompanist to wry musical commentary on the action. Max De Wardener and Winston Clifford swung easily through a range of different musical styles and Winston’s imitation of Ella doing Every time we say goodbye was a treat.
The Singer’s Tale is a show with a difference: it combines a glimpse into a crucial period in British Jazz and social history with a moving account of a woman’s life and it does it with humour, passion and top notch musical performances. It would benefit from editing to tighten up its running time and put in a few more clarifications (e.g. of who people were in the experimental music field), and the contexts of some of the songs (e.g the song about a mad, bad boy Billy) were unexplained. However, this isn’t a finished show: it is work in progress and these weaknesses don’t detract significantly from its power.