Anita Wardell belongs to the classic tradition of vocalese singing. British born, but part educated in Australia where she studied jazz and improvised music at the University of Adeleide, Anita Wardell has been influenced by the innovatory work of Eddie Jefferson (performing with Jefferson’s late career sidekick Richie Cole) and Mark Murphy and this grounding reveals itself in the ease with which the singer performs on ballads as well as be-bop excursions. The repertoire is varied and challenging and this makes for an entertaining and informative listen.
The title track was originally a Pat Metheny instrumental original with lyrics added by Wardell and the number now takes on both a decidedly blues as well as gospel tinge. For fans of the great American songbook, ‘Surrey with the fringe on top’ will prove a revelatory experience and unquestionably an album highlight. Commencing at a rapid tempo, the piece then slows down to mid-tempo with a exquisite soulful delivery from the singer. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superwoman’ was an intricate, yet undeniably beautiful song in its original format, but here Wardell tackles the number in two distinctive parts. For the first, she plays it laid back before shifting up a couple of gears and the contrast between the two is a joy to behold.
It was a terrific idea to attempt the number in a jazz idiom and the result is a triumph. Elsewhere the uplifting update on eclectic multi-instrumentalist and genius Hermeto Pascoal is another example of Wardell taking on difficult pieces and turning them into something new, though here the Brazilian tradition is very much respected with a gentle and lyrical guitar solo by Guillermo Hill.
A bossa favourite ‘Você e eu’ (‘You and I’) receives a lilting rendition with rhythm guitar and percussion playing their part. While Anita Wardell excels on uptempo numbers, she is equally adept on ballads and the sensitive treatment of ‘You’re my thrill’, especially in the delicate use of drums, works extremely well while the wordless vocals incorporated à la Bobby McFerrin or Al Jarreau are an indication is that here is a singer who really listens to others and is willing to take on board their techniques.
Tim Stenhouse, ukvibe.org
Anita Wardell, the Australia-raised vocalist who appeared on the UK scene in the 1990s, makes albums that deploy familiar vocal-jazzmethods and plenty of well-travelled standard songs, but also demonstrate a real care for her art. This set finds her accompanied by a sophisticated quintet led by her regular pianist Robin Aspland, on a repertoire mixing standards such as You’re My Thrill and Without a Song with material by Pat Metheny, Bobby Hutcherson, Hermeto Pascoal and Stevie Wonder. Wardell’s own lyrics are confidingly delivered over the country-song sway of Metheny’s and Lyle Mays’ Travels/The Road, and You’re My Thrill stretches and swoops between an eerily distracted hover and straight jazz time. Pascoal’s Frevo Em Maceio is a vehicle for Wardell’s boppish agility, skipping flutelike over the mercurial melody, and she quietly caresses the meanings out of Stevie Wonder’s Superwoman with an expertise that never betrays a hint of artifice. An unobtrusively classy vocal album.
John Fordaham, The Guardian
The thing about Anita Wardell is that she makes tricky stuff sound not just easy but natural. There are moments here, on well-known standards such as You’re My Thrill and Without a Song, that could be harmonic and rhythmic minefields, but she sings them all with an airy grace. Her mutual understanding withRobin Aspland, that most lucid and inventive of pianists, is a constant delight. And when it comes to scat singing, for which she is famous, if this breakneck version of Frevo Em Maceio doesn’t put a spark into your day, nothing will.
Dave Gelly, The Observer
Anita Wardell sang at the fondly remembered night several years ago when the Evening Standard threw a brilliant staff party in the lobby of the V&A. She sounded great then and she still does. Her voice with it’s ultra-late vibrato, is warmer than ever on a new album ranging from brilliant scatting on Without a Song to tender balladry on You’re my Thrill and self-penned new lyrics to themes by Pat Metheny and Bobby Hutcherson. Guitarist Guillermo Hill and hand drummer Adriano Adewale then join her and Robin Aspland’s piano trio for two Brazilian songs, one by Hermeto Pascoal, the genius whose Portuguese tongue-twisters few other UK vocalists attempt. It’s another Wardell-Winner.
Jack Massarik, The Evening Standard
For every Jamie Cullum there are a dozen highly talented British jazz singers who beaver away on the circuit to the delight of the cognoscenti, making critically acclaimed albums and commanding the respect of their peers without the benefit of a profile that might bring a wider audience to hear them.
Anita Wardell is a case in point. With a career dating back to the 1990s, she has enjoyed more than two decades of success. Last year, she was pronounced Best Jazz Vocalist at the British Jazz Awards, leading a shortlist that indicated the sheer depth of talent in this diverse field (Claire Martin, Liane Carroll, Val Wiseman and Clare Teal).
She has earned an international reputation for the scat-singing which has become her trademark, as well as the sensitivity with which she handles ballads and standards, discovering fresh nuances in familiar lines with the lightness and flexibility of her touch. She is one of the most innovative performers on the scene, but she could probably stroll through the Soho heartland of London jazz unrecognised.
Perhaps she’s happy with that. But given the quality of her recent album The Road, it seems a crime that her name isn’t more widely known beyond the glass walls of the jazz world. And I say that as someone who isn’t the greatest fan of scatting. But only a tin ear could fail to appreciate her musicality and subtlety in this department – by no means the only skill on show on this exciting record.
Belying the rather bleak and wintry scene on the album’s cover, The Road ripples like a sophisticated summer evening, particularly in Wardell’s nimble treatment of Frevo em Maceio and Voca e eu, both redolent of warm Brazilian nights, and her distinctive handling of an old favourite, Surrey With the Fringe on Top.
A Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays mash-up of Travels and The Road, with Wardell’s own lyrics, sets the scene for a journey across some nicely-chosen terrain, which includes a sensuous You’re My Thrill, Stevie Wonder’s Superwoman and a thrilling take on Without a Song.
The highlight of the album is With Every Breath I Take, which Wardell turns into an elegant, thoughtful torch song. The way she holds the note on the word ‘break’ is a lesson in the virtue of restraint over grandstanding vocal gymnastics.
from The Art of the Torch Singer