People We Once Knew

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Verge
PERFORMER: Andra Sparks (v), Nick Weldon (p), Iain Dixon (ts, ss, bclt), Jeff Clyne (b), Trevor Tomkins (d)
CATALOGUE NO: 002 CD

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Andra Sparks is a classically trained singer who specialised mostly in performing the works of 20th-century English-speaking composers including the songs of Americans Samuel Barber and, particularly, Madeleine Dring. The latter’s harmonies seemed jazz-based and, in 1992, Sparks’s curiosity led her to enroll at the Wavendon Jazz Summer School.

There, she was introduced to the songs of Norma Winstone and Kenny Wheeler and underwent a kind of Damascene conversion to jazz. People We Once Knew is the exquisite result of her new passion. The members of her trio were all on the teaching staff of that fateful summer school and all three have an abiding love of language as well as of music.

The outstanding saxophonist and clarinettist Iain Dixon makes his poetic and always fitting contributions to eight of the 11 performances. The opening, Cole Porter’s ‘Love for Sale’ is taken at a slow tempo with an insistent bass riff and sparse chiming piano chords. Sparks’s pacing and clarity of delivery heighten the irony of the lyrics and uncover new emotional layers. Dixon’s tenor sax obbligato to her voice is wonderfully sensitive, and his tender and wistful solo amplifies the atmosphere of lament and loss.

Sparks’s vocal dynamics and change of timbre from sweet and soft to harder also emphasise the drama. She’s already a jazz diva. There are similarly focused performances of two poetic Wheeler/Winstone pieces – ‘For Jan’ and ‘Wintersweet’ – and of Nick Weldon’s two lovely songs: the title track with its lyrics which are at once a celebration and a lament, and ‘Asterisk’ which Sparks sings wordlessly.

Trevor Tomkins and Jeff Clyne are a tower of quiet strength throughout, swinging ecstatically on ‘You Fascinate Me’ and ‘Never will I Marry’, and aptly complementing the poetic pieces. Weldon’s wise and perceptive booklet notes illuminate this remarkable album. Live at the Albert has Nick Weldon with his regular trio, recorded in a live performance at the Albert Inn, Bristol, on 16 May 1999.

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The three men have been accomplices in the art of music-making for some years now and their rapport, exuberance and uninhibited swing are thrilling. Here they stretch out in five superlative performances of standards: Rodgers & Hart’s ‘Falling in Love with Love’, Walker/Arnold’s ecstatic gospel piece ‘You Don’t Know Me’, Hampton Hawes’s lovely waltz ‘Sonora’, ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ and ‘Love for Sale’. Weldon and the trio are brilliantly inventive; the audience is enthralled.