Earlier tonight, Carmen Lundy was magnificent in the first of four performances over two nights at Soho's Pizza Express. Taking the stage to a very warm welcome she opened proceedings with the uptempo Kindred Spirits, a story of making it despite being born on the wrong side of the tracks. Her own composition and the opening track of her new album, it set the tone for the evening with the audience captured from the beginning.
Her voice ranges from the velvety to the harsh. She can sing slow, she can sing uptempo. But best of all, Carmen Lundy can swing and sing real jazz. This was best displayed on the title track of her superb new album - Soul to Soul. Impossibly cool and atmospheric it could have been 3 in the morning rather than 8.30 in the evening. And with jazz funk legend Patrice Rushen playing the piano accompaniment(!) it couldn't possibly have been cooler. In a similar vein, Daybreak is another classy jazz number that swings and sees her voice soar upwards in a happy romantic mood.
Carmen Lundy is a real performer who gets into the mood of each song. She spoke of the courage it had taken to write (and sing) When Will They Learn, a plea to stay away from drugs and a memorial to the many great musicians and friends she has lost over the years to this scourge. It would have been possible to hear a pin drop during the song and her feeling and emotion reminded me of the similarly themed (although totally different sounding) Esther Phillips song - Home is Where the Hatred Is.
Much of the music on this new album has a message, a story. Ms. Lundy wrote Grace together with the South African artist, Simphiwe Dana who she met whilst performing in that part of the world before working together in the States and producing this story of overcoming prejudice, breaking down barriers and "stepping into the light". Grace is confident, uplifting and hopeful and once again, we had great piano from Patrice Rushen whilst Jamieson Ross on drums and percussion and Darryl Hall on bass were outstanding throughout.
I am a sucker for a great bossa nova number and Everything I Need is just that with its insistent Brazilian rhythm, laid back vocal and again, ultra cool feel. Ba-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, ba-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da…
One long set of a little more than an hour flashed by and it was time to go but not before an encore and a story from one of the audience about how Carmen deliberately sang off-key in the early days of Camden's Jazz Cafe to get the attention of a non-jazz audience who were annoyingly chatting through her first two numbers. Well there was no need for such tactics tonight and she left the stage to a second standing ovation. It is hard to understand why she is relatively overlooked despite having a voice that matches the likes of Diane Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater and other stellar contemporary female jazz vocalists. Her distinctive style combines a contemporary feel with references to some of the all time greats including another Carmen - the late, great Carmen McRae and the also underrated Nancy Wilson.
She told us tonight that she is very proud of her new album and feels that it is her best work so far. She has written or co-written 11 of the 13 tracks in addition to playing several instruments, doing the string arrangements and co-producing the album. She is right, its a classic. If you haven't got the album get it, and if there are any tickets left for the Saturday night shows (and there probably aren't), get one. Tonight was one of Pizza Express Jazz's finest hours.