It’s a privileged moment to witness a young band transition from ‘promising’ to ‘established’—and that’s what Lilli Unwin and her trio delivered. The promise alone was considerable: Unwin is a rising star, with a fine voice, capable of the expressive requirements of a very wide range of material; and in these parts, pianist Matt Robinson is most often proudly introduced as ‘Wakefield’s own’.
The demands on a jazz singer begin with the repertoire: how to put together a programme which satisfies and at least sometimes confounds easy expectations; offers contrasting paces and moods; and sits comfortably within the singer’s range, playing to strengths and displaying the individual qualities of voice and style. Lilli Unwin ‘s two sets were cleverly planned, allowing her own talents—and those of her band—an open and relaxed but musically substantial evening.
Unwin presented us with quite a variety of songs—from her individual slant on scat, picks from the Great American Song Book, lesser-known numbers that really ought to get aired more frequently (like ‘Midnight Sun’), a few of her original compositions and even Joni Mitchell’s challenging lyrics to the Mingus tune, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.’ Her voice has a delicacy and purity at its most effective in the upper register, but she was able to contrast the main lines of her singing with well-deployed lower-register turns. She also had a particularly good line in that high-risk technique of sliding into a note, which is such an effective way of embellishing a melodic line and modulating its impact. The beauty of the effect masks the precision of the technique.
It is difficult to imagine a pianistic demand that Matt Robinson couldn’t meet; and it was a delight to see him in the role of accompanist, with its particular requirements for support and responsiveness. Of course, Lilli Unwin also gave him plenty of space to stretch out on his solos, too: wonderful showcases for his musical imagination and deft technique. Bass player Flo Moore was an all but self-effacing anchor to the proceedings, deeply musical and utterly dependable, but her solos revealed a depth and imagination that came as a revelation. And drummer Will Glaser was a performer in more than the ordinary sense—like the rest of the band, he appeared to be having great fun, adding playful surprises throughout—and in the final number, playing spoons as well.
It didn’t take long to realise that the evening wasn’t going to comprise a singer fronting a trio, but a fine, coherent, musically engaging band. Promise fulfilled.
© J. Whitman, 12th November 2016