There is something quietly remarkable about Sara Mitra’s debut. Though the term “crossover” can leave a horribly naff and cynical aftertaste, rarely has the balance been so effortlessly struck between a folky, singer-songwriter sensibility, a sophisticated jazz sound, and a broadly accessible appeal.
Married to her drummer and co-arranger Tim Giles (who is responsible for the album’s lithe grooves), Mitra has assembled an impressive set of musicians from the leading edge of jazz, specifically the Impossible Ark collective. Giles plays in Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Quartet, and he and reeds player James Allsopp make up the Golden Age Of Steam trio with Mercury nominee Kit Downes. Allsopp lets rip on Jilted Woman Blues, the album opener that plants the listener into the smoky world of classic jazz. Thereafter, the jazz references get more contemporary, moving towards a bright ECM sound on Far, on which Allsopp switches to soprano sax and Lucy Railton adds layers of cello.
The jazz aesthetic extends to the production (by Ben Lamdin of Nostalgia 77), which – though crisp – retains a loose, spontaneous sound. At times, Mitra’s voice is mixed into the band almost as another horn, a la Norma Winstone; on the traditional ballad Black Is The Colour, by contrast, it is virtually a cappella (save a keyboard drone), exposed in all its expressive purity. Sidestepping vocal jazz clichés, she finds an elasticity and warmth reminiscent of Beth Gibbons, especially on the tricksy Let Me Love You.
Any British jazz singer faces some tricky choices as to accent. Mitra leaves her Walthamstow vowels and gutturals intact, which generally adds to the directness and honesty of her delivery, and ensures that her own songs fit snugly alongside judicious covers of American material (Bobby Cole‘s Life On A Look and Nat Adderley and Curtis Lee‘s The Old Country, the latter featuring a monstrous organ sound from Ross Stanley). However, there is something jarringly Lily Allen-ish about the “what you gonna do, eh” chorus of Sunday Morning, deflating the excitement whipped up by the stabbing cellos and bass clarinet multiphonics.
Mitra’s ominously melodic songs prove Tom Waits‘s dictum that “we want to hear bad news from a pretty mouth”. Heavily pregnant for much of the recording, both April Song and Far are concerned with motherhood, the title track exploring the darker side of the maternal bond. With ethereal harmonies racing along a 5/4 rhythm, it presents an arresting, William Blake-like view of infant sorrow: “When a mother loves her children she will never let them stray / Child must tear away from woman, rip the flesh to get away.” Along with another dark morality tale, The Choice, its gnomic lyrics and classic chord progression recall the late Abbey Lincoln, and like Lincoln, Mitra steers clear of the conventional chanteuse mode.
By contrast, closer Baby And Me is a throwaway bit of Latin fluff, though its lyric hints at an unhealthy side of the relationship it extols: “Love is tender, love is pure, love is poison, love’s the cure”. As with Rumer‘s recent album (which also delivers its share of bad news) the sugary finish feels insincere compared with what has come before. This does not, however, eclipse the fact that in Sara Mitra, British jazz has an exciting new voice whose debut already sounds like the work of a wise old soul.