Shirley Smart Trio, 11th February 2022

Shirley Smart, cello.
John Crawford, piano.
Demi Garcia Sabat, drums and percussion.

No one with even a glancing familiarity with jazz would have any difficulty naming numerous bass players; and one probably wouldn’t need to strain to name half a dozen violinists. But cellists? It’s an enduring mystery why an instrument held dear by countless music lovers should appear so infrequently in improvisatory settings. 

Cellists are found at the fringes of jazz, most often in support roles, but jazz cellists are something of a rarity. The outstanding players—Oscar Pettiford, Ron Carter, Dave Holland—are best known as outstanding bass players. 

So Shirley Smart’s appearance at Wakefield Jazz was keenly anticipated. What we might have expected—chamber-oriented, re-worked classics, perhaps?—was met with a stunning display of cosmopolitan inventiveness which not only restored us to the fact that jazz is but one of the world’s great improvising traditions, but also revealed the wondrous, expressive range of the cello. 

As Shirley revealed between numbers, she had had long residence and wide-ranging professional experience in Israel and North Africa, absorbing all manner of musical cultures. As a result much of her material, both original and drawn from disparate traditions, was based on non-Western scales which incorporate microtones. It was to pianist John Crawford’s considerable credit that both his accompaniments and solos worked so seamlessly against contrasting modes. At times, his left hand embellished Shirley’s rhythmic patterns, while his right flew off into more familiar jazz territory.

What soon emerged is that Shirley’s riveting mastery of the cello includes the fact that she is also an accomplished bass line accompanist. Her plucked notes patterned John’s piano melodies in a variety of ways—running a parallel line, in rhythmic contrast and in a more familiar jazz idiom. In the penultimate number of the evening, John complemented Shirley’s near east melody by delivering remarkable bouzouki-like trills and runs. 

Demi Garcia Sabat’s drumming and percussion were beautifully suited to the material, providing endlessly shifting colour and propulsion. His hand-playing had all of the qualities that the frame drum brings to oud ensembles, but with all of the resources of his drum kit also at the disposal of his deep musicality. For all that this was a closely integrated trio, he was a show in himself. 

Of course, Shirley also delivered the kinds of long, bowed passages that everyone familiar with any kind of cello music deeply responds to, notes that seem to run right through the heart, giving expression to feelings that can’t be given justice by words alone. 

They weren’t getting away without an encore, the standard, ‘All of me’—another surprise in an evening that was utterly engaging, fascinating and sheer delight from start to finish. 

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