Review: Ingrid James & Louise Denson – Wild Silk Strings Project/ Colours of your Love

I’m in love with Ingrid James. There, I said it.

I love her voice, her timbre, her phrasing, her flair for improvisation, the way she builds up a high note, the way she gives meaning to lyrics. I think she can do no wrong. She can even get a perfect song and make it better.

Having said that, I must admit that I prefer her work in small ensemble settings, which leave her more space to fill with her voice. The relatively sparse orchestration of a trio or quartet allows her to breathe and unfold her vocal range, play around with melodies, stretch ideas, present her artistry to full extent. That is not to say that she does not excel in larger ensembles; her two albums with the San Gabriel 7 (one of the most tightly-knit bands out there, with a trademark compact sound) demonstrate another aspect of her approach to music; her ability to blend in and become one with the band, stepping in and out of the spotlight, according to each song’s needs.

The Wild Silk Strings Project, the fruit of her longtime collaboration with pianist, arranger and composer Louise Denson, sits somewhere in between. The ensemble combines a typical jazz band – rhythm section (bassist Andrew Shaw and drummer Christopher Todd Harrison), saxophones (Paul Greggors White and Martin Kaye) and trumpet (Paul Armstrong) – with a string trio (Eugenie Costello-Shaw, Danielle Bentley and Richard Grantham).

Although not really common, this kind of orchestration is far from innovative. Usually though this sort of jazz-meets-classical setting leads to two types of approach: either having the string section juxtaposed to the ‘jazz’ section in a type of ‘edgy’ clash, all points and angles and thorns, or used to add a lush, fluffy and sugary-sweet element to the sound. Louise Denson does neither. Her brilliant arrangements see all the instruments seamlessly blended together, creating a firm, but not dense, sonic canvas for Ingrid James’ voice and Paul Greggors White’s sax to add their bold, bright colours. It’s not everyday that you get a string trio interact that well with a drummer, to the point of often sounding percussive themselves.

All this is perfectly demonstrated on Colours of Your Love, the Wild Silk Strings Project’s just-released album.

The Wild Strings scope and intentions are clearly presented in the first three tracks of the album. The choice for album opener is not accidental. Eric Satie’s ‘Gnossienne N1’ marks a turning point for western music, foreshadowing minimalism, avant-garde and even modal jazz. This arrangement adds a slightly oriental beat that adds a visceral urgency to its original contemplative tone, and offers Ingrid James a perfect opportunity to showcase her skills in wordless vocalising, her voice closely followed by Paul Armstrong’s trumpet, releasing sharp sonic blades.

It is followed by a cover of K.D. Lang’s ‘Constant Craving’, which allows for Ingrid James to demonstrate her qualities as a story teller. This is a singer with a lot of life experience and it shows. She is your lover, your mother, your sister, your friend, your confidant and your spiritual guide.

The album’s ‘mission statement’ is completed with the third track, Louise Denson’s uptempo ‘Flame Tree’ – which also opens another segment within the album, being the first of three latin-tinged tunes, with a seductive bolero, ‘First Love’ an original Denson/ James composition shining bright among them.

Denson and James sign five of the album’s twelve songs, all works of exemplary craftmanship that deserve a place in the Australian Jazz canon (if there is such a thing). My personal favourites are the upbeat ‘Wild December Wind’ and the introspective ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ (I’m a sucker for 3/4 tunes); both perfect vehicles for Ingrid James to showcase her ability to convey real, almost tangible, emotions. You can feel her voice embracing and caressing you.

The only track that somehow doesn’t work for me is the cover of Supertramp’s classic ‘Logical Song’ (which other people might like, particularly since it features a killer solo by Paul Greggors White). At first I thought that this is because I’m so used to the original, that I cannot accept another version, but this is not the case – I didn’t have the same problem with ‘Constant Craving’, a song that has been on my summertime playlist for many years. Then it dawned on me: ‘Logical Song’ is a very tricky tune. It has this bitter-sweet quality that calls for it to be delivered with a bit of irony, cynicism, sarcasm, or even detachement. But there is no room for any of those elements in Denson and James’ music. They are not cynics, there is no room for irony, nor detachment in their music. Their music is filled with empathy and love. So there you go. This is probably the best way to describe this album – it is so full of true emotions, that an ironic song seems out of place in it.

To get a copy of Colours of Your Love, go to this page.