Gwyneth Herbert is the jazz crossover artist it’s OK to like. While Jamie Cullum’s puppy-like looks often make him appear like a kid singing along to his parents’ old records, Herbert is a woman in complete control of her material; elegant, intelligent and seductive with an epic honey and whiskey voice. Her second album Bittersweet and Blue was recently released to considerable acclaim, making her an ideal choice to open this year’s London Jazz Festival.
The night didn’t get off to the best of starts. Quite why the South Bank Centre decided to open their first big show of the festival with the rather bland Teddy Thompson is anyone’s guess. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar Thompson had a strong pleasant voice but his lyrical ability was weak, his songs flat and repetitive and, crucially, there was just no way he could be classed as a jazz musician. Note to aspiring singer-songwriters: if you’re going to perform generic melancholy strum-alongs like this do not burden your songs with titles like Is It Over? and Turning The Gun On Myself.
Fortunately Gwyneth Herbert herself did not disappoint. Looking stunning in scarlet and black, she was every inch the professional performer, sashaying across the stage, introducing each number with a snappy anecdote or a reverent purr, careful not to overly eclipse her band. Her set was an eclectic joy, switching between jazz standards and her own self-penned numbers, effortlessly gliding from a song by Cole Porter to one by Janis Ian.
Not everything worked. Her version of Crowded House‘s Into Temptation lacked a certain spark and a Tom Waits song also failed to sparkle; each of her backing band was allowed a moment in the spotlight but this democratic approach was perhaps taken too far when the guy on the bongos embarked on a solo.
When things came together they did so with style. A minimal, double bass-accompanied Cole Porter number became a staccato gem. A Portishead track was wonderfully reworked, playing to Herbert’s vocal strengths. And her version of Fever was a highlight of the evening, her voice dipping and soaring, building from a sensual softness to a show-stopping boom. It’s a real credit to her own material that it stood up in comparison.
Once again there was a sense of being let down by the boxy inadequacy of a South Bank venue – at the end of the night we were left with a strong sense of regret at having missed her pre-Bittersweet sets at the Pizza Express jazz club – but this could not diminish the fact that Herbert is a fantastic talent; a charming on-stage presence with a voice to make hearts melt.