Artist/s: Kristin Berardi (voice/piano), Sam Anning (double bass/guitar), with Andrea Keller (piano)
Category: Improvisation, Jazz, Vocal
Label: Earshift Music.CD purchase: https://kristinberardiandsamanning.bandcamp.com/album/our-songs-not-songs
Artist web address: https://www.kristinberardi.com/
Reviewed by Philip Pogson
“In reverting to voice with bass, Anning and Berardi, with minimalist use of technology, make a strong argument that less is more in successfully presenting their songs as their best selves.”
Son, my father used to say, always start a job the way you intend to finish it.
Kicking off a jazz vocal recording with a luscious keyboard progression of resonant 7th and 9th chords, or a flashy horn intro that lays down the groove for the upbeat entry of the singer, is pretty much standard practice. It is done over and over in this genre because, well, it works. Listeners know what to expect and music directors and producers know how to deliver. Everyone is happy and contented. Perhaps, too contented.
In contrast, He was a loaded gun, the first track on Our Songs, Not Songs, opens with single, low note on Sam Anning’s double bass, followed by a couple of glissandi that morph into a riff. A few bars later Berardi joins him. Anning’s contribution is rhythmic but measured while Berardi scats to multi-tracked vocals. Somehow, I don’t miss the band, it seems strangely surplus to requirements. The feel is intimate and the magic spins through to the final track. Except for Aloft, on which Andrea Keller sits in on piano, and We Build Walls, where Anning plays guitar and Berardi, piano, its voice and double bass all the way. The recording ends as it starts, as a duo.
There is no place to hide for the trapeze artist. Each momentary wobble at altitude, let alone a fall, is visible to the assembled crowd. It is no different for vocalists. Sparse instrumental textures are their own form of tightrope, revealing the artist’s every weakness and any insecurities. Pitch problems, awkward phrasing, or underlying breath support issues are laid bare and magnified. To walk this particular artistic tightrope, to take up the challenge of the bass-vocal duo, demands a certain kind of fearlessness. It is no easier for the double bass half of the act. Anning provides the rhythm section, sketches out the harmony, fills in the textures and takes solos when called upon. Every note matters, every pitch glitch is on merciless display. But these potential problems never materialise, we are in the confident hands of masters of their craft.
Our Songs, Not Songs, consists of four originals by Kristin Berardi, and four by Sam Anning along with a cover of Lament for Linus by jazz pianist, Brad Melhdau. Inspired by a chapter from the book Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, the second track, Anning’s Bamboo Shoots, rides on a lively, attractive bass riff over which the vocals glide graciously before standing back for a beautifully paced bass solo.
Melbourne pianist, Andrea Keller, enters on Aloft (Anning), opening up the song with gentle, pensive keyboard arpeggios which broaden later into a fully-fledged, light touch solo episode. Berardi’s vocals are rich and vulnerable while Anning’s bass playing is so effective one does not notice the absence of a drum kit. Aloft is one of the most attractive songs on the recording.
Anning’s Cactus Flower is a song in two halves. The first two minutes take the listener back to the voice/bass combo. Anning’s accompaniment is also pared back. Neither artist is afraid of silence. Slow evolving phrases are played out and allowed to breath before the silence is once more broken. At the half-way point the vocals cease and somewhat unsettling electronic sounds enter for the first time on the recording, building on a bowed bass pedal and playing out to the track’s final bars. It is an unexpected moment and serves to refresh the sonic palette just when one might have begun to question how long the voice/bass conceit can hold interest.
Anning’s Sweethearts first appeared on his Across A Field as Vast as One CD. Sweethearts tugs at the heartstrings of all that jazz vocal lovers enjoy about the genre and its exponents: a jaunty, toe tapping bass line over which resplendently phrased vocal lines, snake, swing, and soar. Berardi illustrates she can scat with the best of her peers. I loved the sheer joyfulness of this song – which to this reviewer’s ears, finished too soon!
According to the CD’s marketing material, Brad Melhdau’s Lament for Linus – the only cover on Our Songs, Not Songs – is a vocalese for which Berardi has penned lyrics to the piano line. The chart appeared originally on Melhdau’s The Art of the Trio Vol.1 album. It was interesting to go back to the original to get a sense of the piano material – which commences ballad like before moving into a faster solo – that Berardi developed for her version. It is the longest track on this recording and perhaps the key example where Berardi’s raw jazz chops are on display. Her version adds text to Melhdau’s initial slow-moving section, building tension until cascades of notes spring forth, vocalised across a range and breadth of notes that would have done a tenor saxophonist proud. The ballad section returns to close out the song.
The final three songs, She is the colour red, We build walls and More than we need, are all Berardi originals. The first of these sits in the warm, sweet spot in Berardi’s voice and has a laid-back Californian feel to it. Anning offers simple, largely two note to the bar pulses which somehow seems all the accompaniment the song requires. Berardi’s similarly simple, but insistent two note piano lick sets up We build walls, the only track on which Anning plays both guitar and bowed bass. The relatively simple chord structure and slow instrumental build recalled the best of Irish singer Damien Rice’s songs, particularly his collaborations with cellist Lisa Hannigan as on Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities. The final track, More than we need, returns to the underlying musical premise of this recording: that the bass/voice combination is all that we need. We are back to the opening, unadorned moments of He was a loaded gun. This time around, however, the melody could be a simple Gaelic folk song. The tune is movingly presented as a kind of gift, like a stripped back encore at the end of a show. The musical simplicity is a commentary on the topic at hand: the fact that many of us have more than we need, or, if we are honest, all that we need, while others have less than they require to live decent lives.
Just this week I had a conversation with a skilled sound engineer who now teaches his craft at a tertiary level. He was commenting on the fact that the 21st century sound engineer has so much technology at hand that it is tempting to use all of it, all of the time, whether or not their enticing bag of tricks actually adds to the music. He constantly challenges his students to engage no more technology than a track actually needs to be presented as its best self.
In reverting to voice with bass, Anning and Berardi, with minimalist use of technology, make a strong argument that less is more in successfully presenting their songs as their best selves. Perhaps this is the reason that Our songs, not songs, is a recording that plays on in the mind even when the music stops.
VIEW AND LISTEN
You Tube: live performance of Bamboo Shoots from Our Songs, Not Songs
Original piano version of Brad Melhdau’s Lament for Linus as featured in a vocal version by Berardi