For regular attendees of UKARIA’s highly regarded performances, the cabaret-style seating for this performance by jazz vocalist Jo Lawry with bassist Sam Anning and drummer Ben Vanderwal is an instant indicator that this concert is something different from its usual fare.
“It’s going to be fun,” says Lawry as the band jumps in with their first tune, ‘Travelling Light (Unused)’ by Frank Loesser, a grounded music theatre-style song.
The combination of vocals, bass and drums presents a unique challenge. With the lack of a chordal instrument to clearly outline the harmony, Anning has a more complex job in this trio. However, the lack of such an instrument also allows Lawry the freedom to explore the edges of the harmony.
Whilst UKARIA’s pristine performance space is worlds away from a basement jazz club, the live acoustics of the room convey the clarity of Lawry’s voice and the pin-sharp zing of Vanderwal’s hi-hats.
As part of a mini tour of Lawry’s latest trio album Acrobats, with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Allison Miller, the band play the title track by Gian Slater. It showcases Lawry’s flexibility and adept control over her voice. The rhythmic conversations between Anning and Vanderwal are gripping.
Vanderwal steps away for a duo moment between Lawry and Anning for Al Hoffman and Dick Manning’s 1952 song ‘Two to Tango’. This number is incredibly engaging with a palpable playfulness between them.
Lawry introduces her guitar to the band to play the first of her original songs, ‘The Bathtub and the Sea’, providing a sense of grounding in contrast to the lack of chords so far. A number of Lawry’s original tunes feature, including ‘The Kitchen Sink’, ‘Taking Pictures’ and ‘Impossible’, a song written as a duet for herself and long-time tour partner Sting. Her songs stand out for their strong storytelling and sincerity.
Next comes what classic jazz lovers are here for – Irving Berlin’s ‘Remember’. Lawry flawlessly performs a vocalese rendition of Hank Mobley’s classic solo with her own lyrics.
The trio present unique takes on pop songs ‘You’re the Voice’ by John Farnham and ‘Got To Be Certain’ by Kylie Minogue. They are almost completely unrecognisable when played by Lawry and her band as slower, love songs.
Each member of the band is masterful. Lawry has an unmatched clarity in her voice and takes on the jazz greats with her full and versatile sound. Vanderwal looks effortless, managing to create a soundscape of textures as he traverses complicated time signatures and feels. Anning plays the bass with a playfulness that captures the imagination of the audience.
There is no doubt that the audience is captivated by Lawry as they clap and stomp their feet for an encore, an unprepared energetic rendition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s ‘Nobody Else But Me’.
Whilst this performance is a delightful display of Australia’s highest quality jazz musicians, its presentation in an immaculate space like UKARIA is somewhat out of character for this kind of music. This is not a regular jazz audience, noted by the sense of uncertainty within the audience around jazz conventions and Lawry’s acknowledgement of audience members that might not have known what type of performance they were attending. Its inclusion in UKARIA’s program alongside more traditional high culture events and in a space not necessarily accessible to a wide range of audiences poses the question of how the perception of jazz in Australia might be changing.
Jo Lawry with Sam Anning and Ben Vanderwal performed at UKARIA Cultural Centre on Saturday, July 1.
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