Brigitte Beraha is a singular vocal talent, possessing immense control and delivering her words with elegant phrasing. She is also one of the most adroit and imaginative of vocal improvisers, something that sets her apart from even her strongest musical peers.
Her ensemble Babelfish, a collaborative project with pianist and composer Barry Green and featuring Chris Laurence on bass and the brilliant, subtle drummer Paul Clarvis (whose work with brushes here is remarkable), produces music that is both sophisticated and earthy, delicate and assured.
The band’s second album once again looks to an unusual range of sources, from the relatively conventional (WB Yeats’ beautiful poem Salley Gardens, originally set to music by Benjamin Britten and an important work in the development of popular song) to adventurous writers from seemingly very different worlds (Steve Lacy and Caetano Veloso). Perhaps the most curious moment is the juxtaposition of Aaron Copland’s Heart, We Will Forget Him (a beautiful, aching delivery from Beraha perfectly captures the emotion in Emily Dickinson’s poem) with I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, the popular standard that gives the album its hopeful title. Remarkably, the two pieces merge effortlessly.
The bulk of the pieces here are originals, however, and the various ‘confusions’ (short solo features for the various band members) suggest that the quirkier, more radical side of the band might be as important as the open, accessible environments of some of the songs. Whilst these brief interludes feel like improvisations, they are in fact all credited to pianist Barry Green, and his mischievous, quirky musical personality is detectable in all of them. Chris’ Confusion might be the most impressive of these, with Chris Laurence scraping and attacking his bass strings in a manner suggesting anxiety and edginess (confusion indeed). Given that Brigitte Beraha has suggested this album is really all about love, and the various stages of relationships, it’s fascinating that the band have captured uncertainty and frustration as well as warmth and excitement.
The love affairs detailed here extend from the romantic and sensual to the gastronomic. Sushi Hero is one of Beraha’s most intricate and enjoyable pieces, brilliantly capturing the agile, acrobatic qualities of her voice, and the way in which she can make complex melodic contours sound comfortable and familiar. The dancing qualities in the music do indeed suggest a flavour sensation. There’s also a welcome, appealing humour at play here, also reflected in Brigitte’s Confusion, a mostly wordless improvisation, in which Beraha appears to be working through some ideas, or perhaps is tongue tied by emotions.
That dancing quality appears throughout this set, albeit with a notable deftness and airiness. When the version of Caetano Veloso’s Michaelangelo Antonioni leaps into a brisk double time, it feels barely perceptible given how effortlessly the transition is made. Salley Gardens, perhaps more usually performed as a ballad, has a folk dance quality to it that captures both the rapture of love as well as the sadness and regret in missed opportunities that the song relates.
Chasing Rainbows is warm and inviting, but it would be wrong to see it as background music. It achieves a kind of gentle intensity that only comes with a mastery of both musical form and language. Unspoken is a prime example of this quality – calm and reflective on the surface, but with inner tensions. Note the repetition of the line “it’s the cycle of life” – it feels like a new discovery.