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EP Review: "What's New" (2020) by Sarah L King Quintet

Recently emerged from the UK jazz community is Sarah L. King Quintet's new EP: What's New. The group - featuring James Buckham in keys, Mark Rose in the bass, Tom Clarke in drums, and Sarah L. King in vocals - have aimed to execute a few jazz standards to perfection with this track. While that may sound like safe work, to play the music that people already enjoy, Sarah L. King Quintet managed to execute it to perfection while also adding their own flavor. With all its members coming from a very rich musical background, nothing less was expected from them.



1 - I Didn't Know What Time It Was:

The first track of this EP opens up with some percussion with effects, then settles into the standard quintet sound. The beautiful voice of Sarah, when combined with the stunning, but subtle, accompaniment of piano and base, creates the atmosphere of a 50's Diner and gives a chilling nostalgic feeling. However, the piece manages to do it in a very vibrant, musical way. It makes the listener feel that they are watching a musical that takes place in the 50's America. The melody, and the structure, of the music, are extremely cliché in that aspect. Is that a negative thing? Not for this case. What is exceptional with this EP, in general, is the execution. Everything that has to be done was done: Music is well structured, the solo is great and there is a good sense of communication within the band that can be understood by the listener. That especially lets the tracks like this one shine. It makes the track "bluesy", which is very organized and a pleasure to listen to the form of Jazz, and capturing that within a work is much more difficult than you would expect. Sarah's scat in this tune is delightful, along with all the other solos. The band sounds at the peak of what a quintet would sound like. At the end of the day, this piece isn't blues. However, it greatly carries the feeling of the presence of such a strict structure thanks to the good execution of this piece. Overall, all of those aspects create a very nice track and carry the listener to 70 years before, to the era of the American Dream and does so within a contemporary production. The tune fades out back to the percussion sounds in the beginning and leaves the floor to the title track.

2 - What's New

The title track of this EP opens with a smooth and delicate piano intro. The tune is composed by Bob Haggard and it has been performed by a lot of great artists including John Coltrane, Stan Getz, and Carmen McRae. The tune was even one of the soundtracks of Round Midnight. Sarah’s vocals enter with the bass and drums. She delivers the lyrics masterfully through a beautiful melody. The chords are jazzy - coating the melody - and the impressive amount of musicianship of the instrumentalists is certainly audible. The tune showcases the whole package of a good ballad. The improvisations, including an elated scatting from Sarah, are tight. The drummer - using brushes - and the bassist also make the tune swing. The track flows in “two feels” until switching to the classic “four feel” right at the halfway mark for the solos. The two feel returns as Sarah delivers her final lyrics. The lyrics -written by Johnny Burke- are asking an admired one how their life is going like some of the other classic tunes, still, you can hear this rendition of the tune is new. The audio and production quality is first class in the EP. There is just enough crispness in the sound throughout the project that makes it sound more contemporary. The bass is booming and warm. The whole thing gives the vibe of a tight gig you may experience in a great jazz club. Sarah’s scatting skills hint at her being familiar with jazz soloing, listening to her dad‘s trumpet since a little child. Sarah is currently one of the most promising female jazz vocalists in the London Scene.

3 - You Are My Thrill

Following the title track, the third track of the EP “You’re My Thrill” also opens with a moving piano intro. The tune originally is a popular song circa the 1930s, composed by Jay Gorney, with lyrics by Sidney Clare. It was first introduced in the film Jimmy and Sally (1933), and many artists recorded renditions afterward including Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Chet Baker. The previous recordings of this tune were mostly in a big band setup (with strings and brass instruments), still, Sarah L King Quintet pulled it off in a bosa nova-based rendition. The instrumentation is well balanced and the band carries Sarah’s voice gently as expected from good jazz players. Some brief touches from the pianist, bassist, and drummer bring life to the tune and prove excessiveness is not an important factor when it comes to good feels. The piano solo in the middle also involves some fast-paced licks that jazz students try to pick up from Charly Parker transcriptions. The band’s performance is truly effortless and smooth. You really can’t help but sway your body to the beautiful music. Sarah’s delivery of the lyrics is very skillful. Her voice has that silky and emotional classic jazz quality that a lot of artists thrive for. When she says “here’s my heart on a silver platter”, you feel that. At 3.50 just as we think the tune is coming to an end, a metric modulation hits. The Latin groove is incredibly tight at this point of the track as Sarah starts to scat. The song ends with a fadeout drawing us into the next track.

4 - Grandma's Hands

Grandma’s Hands, originally composed and written by legendary Bill Withers, meets with Sarah L King Quartet’s original music to form a novel sound. The song starts with Sarah’s soft vocal and rapidly grows up creating a thorough scene with guitar, drums, and piano. While nice and trad-like riffs are accompanied by the guitar, Sarah’s original singing enters in: “Grandma’s hands / clapped in church on Sunday morning”. During Sarah’s singing, drums, guitar, and the piano work together accordingly -sometimes adding short improv extensions echoing nicely beneath the vocal. Indeed, this is an important element of Sarah L King Quartet’s interpretation that differs their recording from Bill Wither’s original piece. Likely, this extension of “individualism” from Mike King, Tom Clarke, and Rolo Garcia joins together traditional and modern jazz approaches to the blues-weighted and catchy melodies from Bill Wither’s sound. Apart from an increased focus on instrumentalism, the cover also includes some other extensions in vocal. Carried out successfully by Sarah L King herself, the vocal of this cover is pretty comparable with legendary Bill Wither’s. While Sarah continues to maintain her originality in her vocals with her delicate and flexible voice changes, her acapella extensions just perfectly reflect her original style and are successfully embedded into the piece. Though, it’s crucial here to point out the great instrumentalism and technique following Sarah’s first acapella, around the 2nd-minute mark. Here, the piano, drums and the guitar again works together to carry out a nice improvisation, though the focus on collective improvisation and traditional structure remind the listener again that their cover includes blues and jazz approaches in a well-organized way. As Sarah’s vocal develops and reaches an impressive voice in an octave higher, the piece reaches its climax with the famous line: “If I get to Heaven I'll look for Grandma's hands” followed by a small acapella and accompaniment from the instruments.

5 - Solitude

“What’s New”s last track is again a nice cover from the legends: Solitude, originally composed by the great Duke Ellington and lyrics by Eddie Delange & Irving Mills. While having its -though arguably- best cover from Billie Holiday, Sarah L King Quartet had a different take on Solitude. Similar to the sound Duke Ellington had created, this cover also welcomes the listener with ease, tranquility, and calmness. After the introduction including nice and relaxed chords on the piano and Sarah’s high-octave vocal opening, Dai Richards with the bass enters in to play together with the piano beneath the admirable lyrics: “In my solitude / You haunt me / With reveries / Of days gone by." Jim Howard, with the trumpet, enters the scene in the third verse and adds to the jazzy atmosphere although preserving the traditional sound with simple and delicate melodies. All instruments, throughout the piece, preserve this same atmosphere with thinner textures, softer dynamics, and smooth melodic phrasings, indeed, a sound reminding the cool jazz era from the trad jazz times. Although Duke Ellington’s original arrangement and Billie Holiday’s renowned cover maintain to sustain the core sound, Sarah L King Quartet’s cover has, clearly, succeeded intricately altering the atmosphere, while keeping the “root”. Moreover, Sarah’s vocal also reveals the original presentation of their interpretation. Sarah can skillfully play with her voice, low and high, she sings in harmony with the instruments especially -she is able to adapt to the changes in melodic phrasings. Indeed, her voice and Jim Howard’s trumpet seize a great harmony after the 2.5-minute mark. With brushes, piano, and cello in the background, the soft phrasings from the trumpet -wherein brevity is emphasized- and Sarah’s vocal draws the listener’s attention to the conclusion: “Dear Lord above / Send back my love."

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