December 9 1998
It Helps To Be Pretty
Jazz stars who have made it big usually had to do something other than just play an instrument. Louis Armstrong's success came not from his angelic trumpet-playing, but from his gritty vocals. Nat Cole, who looked like a lounge bar-savant who'd be there till a quarter-to-three, sidelined his piano virtuosity with a voice like a caress.
Some of this week's gigs have highlighted the delicacy of the balance between the musical and the extra musical. At Ronnie Scott's, Sarah Jane Morris, a flamboyant, idiosyncratic singer on the borders of jazz, soul and pop, is unquestionably giving the audience a lot to look at, but it works without detracting at all from her musical impact. Weaving, swaying, shaking a cascade of red hair and gesticulating balletically, she suggests a struggle to regulate the escape of a tempest of inner emotions out into the world around her.
The mannerisms of intense spontaneity (conversational sounds of inquiry, defiance and acquiescence threaded around pungent lyrics) are carefully crafted with Morris, but their connection to a distinctive and personal jazz-pop repertoire keeps the crowd watching and listening to her every move.