It’s obvious to even a casual observer of Britain’s jazz scene that there is a resurgence in the art of the song and the craft of the vocalist.
Singer/songwriter Melissa James is set to be one of the finest of this new breed: her unique approach to her craft is immediately apparent on Day Dawns, a strikingly beautiful debut from a vocalist with a deep emotional connection to her music.
James identifies Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell as inspirations, and all three can be discerned in James’ vocal timbre and phrasing. Her emotionally honest approach, the analog recording, and her use of guitars, horns and Hammond organ also lend Day Dawns a quality that harks back to labels like Chess and the great soul sounds of the ’60s—to James Carr, Fontella Bass and Etta James.
James co-wrote the songs with pianist Ross Lorraine, with two exceptions. James invests Eric Bibb and Charlotte Eva Hoglund’s “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down” with a dignified, bluesy, vocal that perfectly captures the ethos of the lyric, while on Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” James’ voice almost breaks with emotion as trumpeter Damon Brown and acoustic guitarist James Pusey rack up the heartbreak as far as it can go.
Overwhelmingly, Day Dawns is a soulful album. On “Precious Time” and “Long Road Travelled,” aided by Matt Park’s empathic slide guitar, it’s a country soul feel, while a more sophisticated, urban, style arises from the pairing of Brown with saxophonist Tony Kofi. Understated yet crucial to James’ style, they sound like the British equivalent of the Memphis Horns. The pair adds urban sophistication to the light and breezy “Sing,” Kofi’s lilting soprano saxophone adds cheer to “Do You Remember When,” and his throaty baritone helps build the upbeat good time feel of “Have A Good Day.”
“I Need You Here” could have been written by Dan Penn or Spooner Oldham, such is its gospel- inflected beauty. This graceful ballad features James at her best, with superb accompaniment from Park’s electric guitar, Lorraine’s electric piano and Nick Ramm on Hammond. James can pare down the instrumentation to the minimum and still deliver swing and passion.
On “You Make Me Feel Good,” she dispenses with everything except Larry Bartley’s funky double bass and some percussive finger clicks courtesy of James, drummer Mark Fletcher, producer Joe Leach. An album highlight, her beautiful, emotional, vocal is backed only by Bartley’s bass and Ramm’s piano on “Day Dawns.”
It may seem slightly ostentatious to say so, but Britain is currently enjoying somewhat of a Golden Age for jazz vocalists. Melissa James shines just as brightly as any of her contemporaries; with her soulful style, classy songs and superb band, Day Dawns is an exceptional debut.
Bruce Lindsay – All About Jazz, June 2012