Something I wrote about Midnight Sun – Ingrid James’ new album

Ingrid James has a new album out; it’s called Midnight Sun, from the Lionel Hampton tune. It is a collaboration with two great jazz musicians from the Czech Republic, Libor Smoldas (guitar) and Jakub Zomer (organ). The three of them have been working together for years, both in Prague and in Australia — they last toured together in 2020, before COVID came to the country. Two years — and a few lockdowns — later, they are touring the country again, promoting the product of that last collaboration. When I was asked to put to words my thoughts and feelings about the music they created together for the album’s liner notes, I was ecstatic. Maybe too ecstatic. I regret nothing.

If you are reading this, you most certainly got your hands on Ingrid James’ latest album, Midnight Sun — which means that you don’t need any introduction to her and her music, nor any persuading to listen to her new recording; for all I know, the CD is currently playing in your stereo right this moment, her divine voice flowing through the speakers and filling the space.

There seems to be no point in me attempting to review the music you’re listening to, either – why on earth would you let anyone tell you if what you chose to buy and listen to is good? It makes no sense. You know it’s good. That’s why you got it. You have exquisite taste in music, and the fact that you own this album proves it — QED, end of story.

So, it looks like there’s nothing left for me to do, other than talk about myself.

Long story short, I’m an expat journalist from Greece, who somehow got to become the editor/manager/administrator/publisher/ one-man-band running a website dedicated to Australian Jazz — and one of the first stories I got to post was a review of Ingrid’s Trajectoire, her 2016 collaboration with Paris-based pianist and composer Alexis Tcholakian. That album saved my life — or, at least, my mental health. I was going through a very bleak period in my life (anyone familiar with the migrant experience, might relate) and Ingrid’s voice came to my ears like a ray of sunshine breaking through grey, heavy clouds, dousing me with light and leading me to safety.

Ever since, I sometimes call her ‘goddess’ as a sort of inside joke — only I’m not really joking.

I do have an affinity towards hyperbole, I’m the first to admit it; I once called her a “high priestess of Australian jazz” — but if you’ve seen her live, with her signature veils of hundred colours draping her body, and her bracelet-adorned arms accentuating her enunciation, as she sings, what other image comes to mind?

How else would you describe the matron saint of Brisbane vocalists, bringing them to the spotlight to sing the jazz book — the ‘real’ one and all the others — like she has been doing for so long?

As a convert, a believer, and a follower, I’ve kept a close eye on her endeavours — while at the same time digging into her past catalogue or recordings. I discovered an artist who is never afraid to explore, to dig deep, to connect.

As an artform, jazz is all about connection and communication. That can be true of most art forms, but jazz specifically demands from artists to be present and in the now, feeding off each other in real time to create something new.

In her search for this type of connection, Ingrid has travelled wherever music has asked her to — from Los Angeles, where she made two magnificent albums with jazz-funk powerhouse San Gabriel 7, to Tcholakian’s Paris neighbourhoods, to Prague.

When I first heard that she was working with Libor Smoldas, I was stunned; I had seen him perform at the 2008 Athens Jazz festival, one of the most niche jazz events in Europe, that just happens to take place in my hometown. This was long before I could even imagine that sometime I’d be living in Australia, and feeling frustrated that Australian Jazz is not as widespread as it deserves to be.

Libor deserves to be more widely known too; a genuine guitar virtuoso with a unique voice, he seamlessly combines the American blues-based jazz tradition with European folk and classical elements, shaping them into a signature style, that’s all his own.

Libor and Ingrid’s musical partnership makes perfect sense; they share a similar approach to jazz, their assertive phrasing being infused with a sort of lyrical sensitivity.

Still, I might have been as prejudiced as the global jazz community is towards Australian Jazz, but I would never expect to hear Libor Smoldas’ name in Australia.

I may read too much into coincidences, but this cemented my own connection to Ingrid, and made me really look forward to her work with the ‘boys from Prague’ — the other one being Jakub Zomer, a gentle giant with a wicked sense of humor, who tames the organ beast, making it purr and breath fire — sometimes simultaneously – at his will.

(L-R): Sasha Kloostra, Jakub Zomer, Ingrid James, and Libor Smoldas, during the recording sessions of ‘Midnight Sun’

The trio is completed by Sasha Kloostra, one of the pillars of the Brisbane jazz scene, and Ingrid’s go-to drummer, offering her a sturdy rhythmic base  to lean on. Paul Armstrong’s trumpet and Lachlan Hawkins’ hand pan drum add texture to Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Little Sunflower’ and Billy Joel’s ‘The Stranger’, respectively.

It’s not very often that you’ll read the names of Hubbard and Joel in the same sentence, and that is testament to Ingrid James’ eclectic taste in material, perfectly demonstrated in this album’s tracklist — covering jazz standards ranging from the ’40s all through the ’90s, along with a few gems from the ’70s pop-rock songbook.

If you are a normal person, you probably started listening to the album from the beginning, and were swept away from the sizzling-hot rendition of Bill Evans’ obscure and posthumously released ‘Funkallero‘.

I, on the other hand, started by the songs I already knew and was looking forward to hearing played by this band — songs that have special meaning to me, such as Lionel Hampton’s ‘Midnight Sun’ (one of the most romantic tunes ever written), or ‘I’ll Remember April’, which has been part of Ingrid’s repertoire for years. I’d also seen her perform Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin” live, but not this way.

As a matter or fact, all the ballads in the album have a high charged emotional density, without ever turning into melodrama — this is probably due to Libor Smoldas’ earthy lyricism, Jakub Zomer’s ability to create haunting sonic undercurrents, and Sacha Kloostra’s carefully timed explosions, not to mention Ingrid James’ masterful control of her instrument.

Contrary to most of Ingrid James’ albums, there’s only one original here, ‘All You (No More Questions)’ — co-written by Libor and Ingrid. It’s a bittersweet love song that allows the band to shine and demonstrate their empathetic connection with each other.

If this was a review, I would probably rave about Ingrid and the ‘Boys from Prague’ choosing to include Joey Calderazzo’s ‘Midnight Voyage’ (first appearing in Michael Brecker’s Tales from the Hudson) in the album — not only because modern standards are often overlooked by the majority of recording artists, but because of the way they took the tune and made it their own, Ingrid fearlessly accepting the challenge to go head-to-head with one of Michael Brecker’s most beautiful solos.

Thankfully, this is not a review — there’s no need for a balanced, objective assessment. We’re all fans here. We can just sit back and enjoy the music.

And praise Goddess for it.