You can take the girl out of Brisbane… Alison Jiear is a riot – a whole lot of woman with a blinder of a voice and the kind of familiarity that they breed in Oz. She and her audience know just how far they can take each other. At one point in her “Under the Influence” show at the cosy St James Studio a few of the boys from Down Under got a little delirious at the prospect of her “scatting” prowess (if you’re not with me don’t ask) and had she not called order in that wonderfully empathic but emphatic way of hers we might still have been picking up the pieces. When Alison says “enough already” the boys know their place. Besides her “scatting” was pretty fabulous in the up-tempo section of “Lady Be Good”. And let’s face it, you don’t pay tribute to Ella with an Ella song unless you can at least approximate to her musical genius.
But Alison Jiear has one of those voices that sits somewhere between a white and a black sensibility and timbre. She’s a natural jazzer, bending and embellishing the line with a naturalness that is second nature – and she doesn’t over-embellish preferring instead an unfussy and more truthful approach where the line itself does the singing. It’s like she just “lifts” phrases where the essence of the songs lie. But don’t ever be fooled by the art concealing art. There’s an awful lot of technique going on here and what she does with that “mix”, playing so skilfully with chest and head voices, is masterful.
Of course, we all love the firepower of the Jiear belt and Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” was always going to exercise the ear drums. Boy, did that sound black and then some. And if you are going to boldly go with “Streisand Got There First” you have to deliver the visceral thrills along with the laughs – including one of those “eternal” Streisand pay-off notes. That got us going. Jiear might make you think that she is coasting some of these songs but she really knows how they go and she sings what really means something to her. David Friedman’s “In Your Eyes” is the title track of her new album and Friedman’s association with the late lamented Nancy LaMott invests it with an overwhelming intensity of association. Jiear really tapped into that.
So we howl at the Tampax song commercial and the unceremonious “Country” take on (or decimation of) “I Dreamed a Dream” replete with pink guitar and more than a few vocal twangs – but Jiear simple and unadulterated is also where it’s at and more often than not simple is what really unlocks the emotion of a song. The highlights of the evening for me were those moments she shared with the ace guitarist of her excellent quartet, Adam Goldsmith. What an artist he is and what an alchemy they achieved together in “I Believe I Can Fly” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. How movingly understated that was. I should mention the other guys, too – Dave Arch, her MD/Pianist, Steve Pearce (Bass), and Mark Fletcher (Drums).
So Jiear sometimes confounds expectations and unlike those who barely give you a power ballad off for good behaviour she knows how to go quietly. Well, relatively quietly.