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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Permission – Sam Leak and Paula Rae Gibson (33Xtreme, 2018) ****

By Sammy Stein

For Permission, pianist Sam Leak ( Aquarium, Don Tepfer, Spike Orchestra, Sam Leak Trio among many more) has got together with vocalist Paula Rae Gibson (Sophie Alloway, Kit Downes and more) on this CD, released on the ever prescient 33Xtreme label.

Permission opens the CD with Paula’s vocals laying smoothly over staccato piano telling the tale of lovers giving themselves permission to do anything. The vocals are soft, sultry and oh, so, laid back with a hint of sexiness. Every word is crystal clear and backed by equally clear piano chords, responses and retorts it makes for engaging listening. There are some great chordal progressions in the latter half which blend well with the vocals over the top. ‘I’ll Catch You When You Fall’ is a beautiful track, with rich, emotive vocals over percussive piano explorations. The deep, full-throated rhythms struck out by the piano strings and echoed through the framework are amazing and their complexity off-set beautifully by the spaced out, clear vocals. Whilst Sam Leak works the piano into a frenzy, the vocals maintain their steady clarity and there are no meeting points yet this continual diversification works well. The lyrics are in perfect contraposition to the piano and the second half sees the piano and vocals both become more emphatic, the vocals introducing more breathiness and the piano ever changing rhythms, separate yet in a distinct dialogue. Sometimes the edge in the vocals is scary. Totally beautiful.

‘Deepest Down’ is about a sensual woman and the vocals about time searching for her origins. ‘She rules by seduction, this woman no man can hold on to’….’she lives to be desired’ the vocals stretch out the words over gentle chords from the piano. Just when the vocals are in the slightest danger of becoming a tad too predictable, the piano intercepts with trills and runs up the keys, in exactly the right places. This is an example of two musicians reading each other well. What is great about the track is the piano line in the second half where major and minor chords clash in the back ground under the vocal line. We are led, deep deep down before the final chords fade away. ‘Rather Make Believe Than Make Do’ begins with sonorous, deep thunking piano over which the vocal line enters. Here the caress of the vocals is answered every time by a piano which almost seems to speak in response. The vocals speak gently of tsunamis of love and intense feelings but the singing is soft, whilst the emotion of the words themselves is reflected by the piano, as if the piano itself gives voice to the lyrics. There is a lovely section where vocals and piano vie for the ears, both being so intense and engaging. Very clever and so listenable.  ‘Second Best’ begins with some open piano work from Sam Leak using the instrument to provide percussive under beats with off-set rhythms and lots of little plonks and twinks along with a thudding boom of the frame. The vocals are clear, relatively smooth against this lovely bit of xylophone-like work going on behind from the gremlin in the frame of the piano. Little by little the keys are introduced to strike the strings and the tone changes and we have chords, still over that repeated percussive rhythm. The echoes through the frame left in the recording are a stroke of genius as they add to the atmosphere.  

‘Lovely Rain’ is deep, dark and atmospheric, the piano bass notes emphasising the vocal line and slightly doom-laden lyrics. A tale of sadness and healing rain, this is poignant and an interesting track. The vocals have just the right touch of breathlessness to emphasise the sadness of the soul. ‘Full Blown Love’ is a song about being in love and wondering if it is real, the questioning, the wonderings, the healing of a broken heart. Under the vocals the piano is used to create a series of trinkling runs, rippling high strings and wonderful rhythmic interpretations, their disparity with the vocals only adding to the effect of the track. The warning ‘all of me or nothing’ in the lyrics is emphasised by a slightly manic episode from the piano, seemingly panicking and from there we go off into a delightful chase up and down the keys, never stopping, rapid fingers flitting up and down searching for perfect harmony but not quite getting there. Absolutely gorgeous. ‘Over Dark Waters’ is another number touched by the darker side in the lyrics, which sound like someone getting a good talking to. The piano supports with steady chords and rhythm which underpin and underline the vocal line. An interesting track to end the CD.

What is great about this CD is not only how the vocals and piano work together at times but also how for much of it they are in perfect contrast. The piano picks up and turns not only the theme but the lyrics in places, which is a marvellous piece of arranging. Paula Rae Gibson has a voice which lends itself to story-telling and the darker moments of life are brought alive by her interpretation.  At times there is enough of an edge to the voice to make you sit and take note, at other times she is subtle and always she is clear. There is an underlying sadness and almost an agony of the soul that appears now and again on the surface in the vocals, which is subtle but present. Tempered by the outlandish and sometimes boyish enthusiasm of Sam Leak’s playing, this is a match made by the musical gods. Sam Leak’s mastery and understanding of a piano is clear and he uses every last string and minutae of the frame which create this wonderful instrument to the full, from using plucked and brushed strings to thunking out rhythms and using the deepest corners to echo back the sounds, tempered with attractive tunes and chordal progressions.

This is a great CD – one to listen to again and again.


ANTHEA REDMOND AKA @Jazzigator said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this review and its in-depth exploration of the CD which was both poetic and forensic in its analysis. It's rare to find commentary as thorough as this without either arrogance or bias that actually motivates the reader to want to know more about this body of work and the musicians who made it all happen. I can't wait to listen to PERMISSION - Thank you, Sammy Stein.