Reviewed at Ronnie Scott’s,
With the Roy Babbington Trio
At Ronnie Scott's
Breathtaking! I feel that this single exclamation fairly and squarely describes the vocal performances so glitteringly accomplished by the wonderful Marlene VerPlanck at the Birmingham Ronnie’s on the recent Bank Holiday Monday. What an artiste she is, to be sure, every department in her impressive technique is simply crammed with great and good qualities. Voice: a superb tone, an incredible three–octave span taking in a bewildering variety of timbres, wherever placed throughout that effortlessly–negotiated range. Intonation: of pitch–pipe accuracy, right from ground level and into the stratosphere.
Diction: annunciation and projection flawless, but flawless. Overall musicianship: formidable. So, technically, this remarkable lady has triumphed to an infinite point of attainment. Yes, without doubt she is at the summit in her chosen idiom, and still growing in eminence and accomplishment, a fact readily confirmed by turning to some of her recent CDs. But them are also other qualities which, in my belief, set her permanently in the gold medal slot–her warmth, sincerity and total commitment to her carefully–chosen, top quality material; plus a stage presence which radiates friendliness and togetherness. The packed audience at Ronnie’s just loved her.
Style? Heavens, with such mastery, where does one begin to evaluate, I ask myself? Ballads, with fine feeling and regard, perfect marriages of words with tunes. Blues, with deep understanding of this essential–to–jazz, deceptively complex idiom, right out of the delta. Scat and bop, miraculously athletic and accurate negotiation of the adventurous lines penned for her by husband Billy. His contributions, via his wonderful charts for the grand accompanying trio on this occasion (more of them later) are massive, sympathetic and beautifully conceived. Not for this package the usual jazz trio busking their way through the changes (however admirably and intuitively); no—all the routines are scored in brilliant and imaginative interplay, so that every shock beat, every passage of syncopation, every modulation happens, as it should, right on cue. Marlene’s memory for all these delightful decorations is just unbelievable. All so right, all so polished. What a glorious partnership this is, quite sublime.
The accompanying trio did a superb job. Fine, virtuoso support, and although they were all reading like mad—totally ‘eyes–down’— from Billy’s scores, it all happened with a sense of on–the–spot reaction which was a miracle of interpretation and cooperation. On piano, Geoff Eales, technically formidable, inventive and totally complementary to the varying moods of the material; Tim Wells on bass, wonderfully agile, bang in tune and spot–on with both supporting and solo responsibilities; finally, Mark Fletcher, a drummer of distinction and drive, never overtly obtrusive, just ‘there’.
A sure way of assessing the success of a concert is to observe the facial expressions and general demeanour of the departing audience. All smiles and delighted comment that evening at Ronnie’s, following a rapturous ovation at the end of the recital. Marlene sang no less than 25 songs—all quality pieces. Harry Warren’s lovely, shamefully under–played ‘Sweet And Slow’, two beautiful songs by Billy, ‘A Quiet Storm’, and ‘Sing Me To Sleep’, ‘Taking A Chance On Love’ (which featured the members of the trio to remarkable effect), Irving Berlin’s ‘You Keep Coming Back Like A Song’, and Hoagy’s ‘Skylark’, a tender version which moved us all to pin–drop silence, then to erupting approbation. You just know, don’t you, when you’re in the presence of a great interpreter? For Marlene VerPlanck is just such a performer, a superb artiste of international appeal and status.
It was a privilege to have been present on such a memorable evening. . . .
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