Live Music + Gig Reviews

Jessica Thandi @ Upstairs At Ronnie Scott’s, London

11 September 2011

With the London jazz scene producing major new talents at an alarming rate, it’s perhaps surprising that there are not yet more vocalists operating within a more accessible musical spectrum. Jessica Thandi, recently graduated from Trinity College of Music, has now arrived to help change that. Jessica is part of a major musical family – her father is Steve Berry, the great bassist and composer who played a major role in Loose Tubes. Her brother Dan is currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music and joins her here to play saxophone on one tune. Other members of the family join in on backing vocals. In such company, it would no doubt be difficult not to embrace the musical path.

This is not Jessica’s debut performance, but it is the gig that launches her self-released debut EP Stardust. Any fears that she might have recorded too early are quickly assured by the relaxed and confident nature of her performance. She is a warm and engaging presence on stage – introducing her family clan as the Berries, before remembering the existence of Gladys Knight and her Pips. Her vocals seem honest and unassuming – she completely eschews scat improvising and there are very few theatrics. Thandi’s voice is less about power and projection than it is about clarity, warmth of tone and the way she deftly inhabits her songs.

For tonight’s gig, she has assembled a band of impressive young musicians. Some, like guitarist Billy Adamson, played on the EP itself. With some of the musicians who played on the sessions unavailable, others have to step in. Drummer Jon Ormston has the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of the superb Jon Scott, but he grooves with a wonderfully relaxed intensity, never overplaying and providing the songs with exactly the right foundation. Pianist George Moore is also a welcome presence, although he does not always cut through the sound balance.

If Thandi reaches a wider audience (something that seems eminently plausible), there will no doubt be some debate as to whether this is pop-influenced jazz or jazz influenced pop. Certainly, the song is what this music is all about – and everything else works in service to her sweet, memorable melodies. Whilst Thandi’s writing may not be as harmonically or rhythmically complex as some contemporary jazz, she does not shy away from adventurous ideas. There is a new song in 5/4 time that works very well indeed, and there are plenty of intricate, compelling grooves, particularly on the sparkling, infectious Blue Is.., with which she finishes her carefully paced set.

Ballads seem to be Thandi’s particular strength, however, particularly when they fuse the richness of jazz with the warmth of folk music. Train Station Song, the closing track from the EP is lovely and Stardust itself is a sort of secular, perhaps even atheist hymn (‘stardust made our bodies, and not some holy force’) set to a delightfully fluid, graceful accompaniment.

Inevitable comparisons will be made with Norah Jones, both because of Thandi’s understated, breathy delivery and because of the careful fusion of pop, folk and jazz in her writing. These are early days for Thandi but the signs are very promising. She already seems to have more than enough material for an album, and her songs are subtle, memorable and often charming, imbued with warmth and energy and a relaxed and engaging stage presence.

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Jessica Thandi @ Upstairs At Ronnie Scott’s, London