sun 19/01/2020

Carleen Anderson: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan, Theatre Royal, Brighton | reviews, news & interviews

Carleen Anderson: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan, Theatre Royal, Brighton

Carleen Anderson: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan, Theatre Royal, Brighton

Honouring a jazz icon in sometimes challenging, sometimes thrilling style

Carleen Anderson at home amongst music

Carleen Anderson’s range of vocal scales and styles is matchless in contemporary pop. Where she aims those enviable resources is the only issue anyone could have with her, a matter of taste she’ll eventually make irrelevant tonight with a flood of gospel-jazz exhilaration.

Anderson’s impeccable lineage – Bobby Byrd’s step-daughter, James Brown’s god-daughter – and period of Acid Jazz stardom after moving from Texas to Britain in the Nineties is less relevant than her ongoing studies in the vocal arts. It means that, at 58, she’s ready to tackle this Brighton Festival show’s subject, Sarah Vaughan. Less storied than Billie Holiday, Vaughan was the singer musicians favoured, and jazz’s most technically facile and imaginative improviser.

It’s an acting job, in a way. Just as Anderson has brought the ravaged pain people associate with Holiday when singing her songs, tonight she walks on to join the Julian Joseph Trio in a vintage diva’s purple gown and full-length gloves. The presumably hot drinks she regularly gulps and pill she swallows suggest getting here at all was touch and go. You’d never guess, as her extravagant scatting on Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” ends with her arms flung back to power out mighty, screamingly high, still creamy notes. This bravura trick, very much in Vaughan’s mode, is repeated to slightly less effect on the very next song, “The World Turns Blue”. Anderson’s fists bunch at the visibly effortful launch from her lungs of another imploring, chandelier-cracking cry, with the art to climax by letting her voice sink back, weeping, to a lower ledge.

Maybe she goes nuclear too often. But when you share Vaughan’s ability to swoop and soar through scales that weigh down lesser singers, it must be tempting to test your powers to their limit. Critic Garry Giddins called Vaughan “an opera singer without an opera”, also noting she could reduce lyrics to mere “additional tools”. As Anderson tries to communicate maddened passion in Vaughan’s late signature song, Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”, by taking syllables on journeys with unguessable ends and putting the song’s frame under maximum pressure, it can look like the hard work it is. If sometimes mannered in the occasional style of its subject, tonight is still a masterclass taught from a lifetime’s lessons.  

Two of Anderson’s own songs allow some of the simple potency and lyrical feeling which has been lacking to enter full force. “Freedom”, written for Nelson Mandela when he was caged, is dedicated to today’s oppressed. It starts with quiet drama, Anderson’s head tilted heavenward, and ends with her gloved hands grappling as her voice soars past prison walls. “When The Light Shines” draws on church roots shared with Vaughan (pictured left by William P. Gottlieb), and as Anderson testifies, she rips off a glove to whack a tambourine, mopping her brow with the surplus formal wear. The band are playing the most exciting jazz of the night, holding a supple beat with gathering, downhill speed, and room for a barnstorming Mark Mondesir drum solo. This tribute to an artist of sometimes unfashionable gifts ends in triumph, with the crowd on their feet.

If sometimes mannered in the style of its subject, tonight is still a masterclass taught from a lifetime’s lessons


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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