This project dates back to 1984 when Georgie Fame and Steve Gray performed a concert with the Metropole Orchestra for Dutch radio. The following year they began to write a new work. Georgie, who wrote the lyrics, was to be “the narrator”, Madeline Bell (‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’, ‘Picture Me Gone’) the singer, and Steve Gray who wrote the music the arranger. The piece was reprised with this live concert version part of that process of revival, and recorded in Tilburg in January 2004, with the Metropole Orchestra and Jody Pijper Singers conducted by Johan Plomp. Steve Gray died in 2008 and his succinct words on ‘the book’ behind the libretto act as a sleeve note, describing the story of Singer, a gospel-singing star in the making from small town southern-state America who sings jazz with local bands but who is attracted to the wrong kind of man. This “true story” continues when the singer moves to the big city, fame strikes but she ends up singing the sort of music she doesn’t value and keeps jazz to after-hours. She’s happy for a while but knows she’s sold out. In the course of the tale she’s given a second chance but her dilemma is whether she will take it or not.
‘Prelude (The Game of Life)’ opens the album with a beautifully rendered after hours kind of piano ballad number that opens into a trio setting straight out of a dream before the piece scales up with the orchestra. The sunny ‘Small Town’ sung by Fame bristles with a blues-rock guitar solo that gains some traction and develops into a fun show number. Then Bell’s uplifting ‘My Second Home’ following brings the mood down with atmospheric organ sending the piece into a 1960s-ish pop/gospel place. Fame sings the lightly swinging catchy title track that begins with horns and reeds and then Bell’s feature, ‘Learning’, has a lovely clarinet opening and the little optimistic motif from before returns. ‘Big Town’, the counterpart of the earlier ‘Small Town’, has more of an old school big band feel and the Metropole powers up for the first time.
Singer isn’t all doe-eyed and innocent. ‘That’s How Hit Records Are Made (The Crap Song)’ is at the crux of the protagonist’s dilemma (and an awareness that this isn’t a musical in its wider aspiration, she isn't a singer of novelty songs) making compromises that come back to haunt her. ‘The Blues and Me’ again another song for Bell is the after hours reality of what the singer can do. In the Dee Dee Bridgewater space a little there’s so much strength and expressiveness here in Bell’s voice that the orchestra responds to well. The arrangement allows for a lot of space and at no stage are either Bell or Fame when he sings swamped. Fame returns on ‘Where Do You Go From Here?’ maybe the least effective of the otherwise strong material. Bell’s poignant rendition, a song of sudden realisation, ‘Isn’t It Strange’, though works well at this late stage. Singer has an instinctive and marked jazz sensibility, and the songs stand up. Bell is magnificent. SG
Released on 7 April