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Stacey Kent Quintet at York Theatre Royal
There's a brief yet deafening pause as the first few piano chords fade and Stacey Kent glances up at the lighting rig, her eyes seeming to search for the necessary emotion for Rogers and Hammerstein's It Might As Well Be Spring. But just before anyone can fracture the silence with a cough or rattle of ice in a glass of scotch, the first line of the song arrives, carried effortlessly and affectionately by the lilting, youthful voice that has helped to carve out Stacey Kent's successful twenty-year career.
Although born in New Jersey, Kent's musical beginnings took shape in the jazz clubs of London's Soho, a couple of tube stops away from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where she was studying at the time. Tonight, the Stacey Kent Quintet manage to transform the main house of York's Theatre Royal into the Cafe Boheme or, indeed, Ronnie Scott's legendary club where Kent spent a number of years supporting other jazz musicians in the early 90s.
Here's a jazz outfit that possesses that rare paradoxical skill of dazzling its audience with very little at all. Everything is doused in subtlety – from the gentle, brushed percussion to the reedy whispers of Jim Tomlinson's (Stacey Kent's husband, arranger and producer's) tenor sax; from the 'just-enough' double bass to the gentle, tenderly-touched piano. Even the sound technician appears to revel in the delicacy of it all, making sure the levels hardly exceed those of the instruments' natural acoustics. So refreshed am I by this sensitivity to what live music should be that I hardly reach beneath my seat for a swig from my own glass of scotch throughout both sets.
Unlike many other jazz vocalists and despite the wealth of recordings she's made of such material, Kent manages to avoid the label of 'standards singer'. When she does dip into the great American songbook, she chooses wisely and, thanks to her unique voice, makes a damn good job of the Gershwins, Porters and Berlins. Indeed, she tells us that her next album will be a live recording of those standards that have come to define the first century of jazz. But Kent brings a literary and poetic dimension to her music that few other jazz artists do. For example, during tonight's show, she sings two songs – Ice Hotel and Postcard Lovers - that were personally written for her by husband Jim Tomlinson and renowned Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as songs by Portugeuse poet António Ladeira. Indeed, her latest album, Raconte-Moi – an exclusively French album – is laden with poetry. This evening, she chooses to perform an English-translation of the album's opening track, Antonio Carlos Jobim's Waters of March, leaving the audience observably astonished by the song's bewitchingly beautiful though tongue-twisting lyrics.
Here, then, is Kent's forte and, perhaps, the reason for this reviewer's eager wish to see the Quintet again when they return to this part of the world later in the year. The Stacey Kent Quintet, in all its sumptuous subtlety, is a band that echoes with a refreshing and irresistible depth and, with albums like Raconte-Moi and performances such as this evening's, a band that even manages to surpass the hallowed pages of the great American songbook.