Review of Gregg Arthur
By John Clare
Foundry 616, in what throughout my childhood was a Sydney industrial area infiltrated by bond stores, terrace housing, a technical college and a technological museum, was full for this Friday night’s appearance by singer Gregg Arthur with the Andrew Dickeson Trio, and with the first song they reached right into my earliest experiences of jazz – through speakers at home or in the new reality for me of the jazz club. That song was “Laura“, a theme from a movie I have now forgotten or have indeed never seen. It is one of a branch of the great American songbook I thought of as my mystery songs…“Laura is the face in the misty light/Footsteps that you hear down the hall..” It was pianist Errol Garner’s first hit. “Where Or When” by Rogers and Hart is another mystery song for me, but let us stay for a moment with “Laura”
The first two syllables (Lau-ra) are sung on the one note. Arthur, in jeans and black leather jacket, brought those syllables – sustained and well pitched – to bear. The trio launched him with a surge of brushes on the cymbals, a ‘ting’ in there somewhere, the pad pad of the bass following you ominously , the piano chording and rippling gently outward, and everybody was silent, absolutely. Dickeson is the drummer, Ashley Turner the bassist and Peter Locke the pianist.
It is always interesting to hear things from one’s own era, so to speak, and to witness much younger people bursting into loud enthusiasm at the climax. What were the virtues – and what in many ways still are the virtues of the jazz club; specifically when a certain crowd turns up to hear a special singer? Not all were particularly jazz fans back in those days. Some of those songs came from Broadway shows or movie, it followed that some who turned up were gay. This is simple reality, and it was also a reality that back then that not all fans were tolerant of different colours or different gender orientations. But the wonderful thing is that most were. It is also true that the straight suburban boy (c’est moi) or girl could feel that he or she was in tune with certain esoteric areas of thought: political , philosophical, spiritual or whatever.
While these thoughts played out, “Laura” – mysterious, even ethereal – began to take on some heat. Gregg Arthur now filled the place with sound, and as the song progressed he applied pressure. Big as the notes become, they were edged with a certain narrow penetrating nasality. The closing notes were ultra-intense and pressurised. The reaction was wild, ecstatic. However you hear it. I think they like it. I know they do.
And when Arthur produced this electric climactic effect he sometimes deftly contrasted it with a snatch of scat phrasing at a different volume. On “Come Rain Or Come Shine” he combined elements of the Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra versions. Starkly different they may be, but Arthur created an organic synthesis. Possibly without being aware of it. Once heard, the phrasing of Sinatra and Charles are not easilly forgotten. They lodge there and emerge and the real artist varies them. I only noticed all this because I know that song and the two great versions well.
Arthur is certainly a jazz singer. You can see this in the way he listens to an instrumental solo. This goes well beyond waiting for the chord or cadence on which to come in.
Arthur’s engagement with the audience is beautifully judged. Some singers would do well to leave their personalities at home, but Arthur gives us just enough information about a song, a comment on Locke’s exceptional memory (“You’re some kind of freak of nature! Any obscure music I mention you can quote from it.”)
On one occasion a remarkable occurrence is related casually. A few years ago Arthur was singing Bacharach’s “Walk On By” and from an oblique angle to the stage flowed some additional beautiful beautiful harmonies. The surprised Arthur had no back-up singers and so turned to investigate. There were Dionne Warwick and her backing singers in the audience.
Clearly, songs from closer to our present have entered the great American songbook. And singers in jeans and leather jackets are singing the old and the new classics, minus tuxedoes or gowns. Also minus cheeziness.
This revival will not last forever. Who knows whether it will return again. When the past is rich, so is the present and future.