Aurora with Zoë Gilby and Noel Dennis – Livestream Review

Well-known in the North East jazz scene, vocalist Zoë Gilby launched her new album Aurora on Friday evening, performing at Gosforth Civic Theatre. Gilby’s new album concept is a compelling one: taking the melodies from the songs of American trumpet player Tom Harrell, she has written lyrics for them which appreciate, reshape and renew his work. Performing alongside trumpeter Noel Dennis, double bassist Andy Champion, guitarist Mark Williams and drummer Russ Morgan, Gilby couldn’t have had a better team to approach this project. Friday’s performance featured incredible solos from every player, and of course, some brilliant vocal moments from Gilby herself. The way in which Gilby paints a picture with her lyrics and her voice is inspiring, and truly illuminated the performance. It’s great to see vocalists using instrumental works as inspiration for their own creative output – the crossover between vocals, lyrics and instrumental playing is definitely a point of intersection more jazz musicians should be exploring. 

Tom Harrell’s ‘Little Dancer’ was the opening piece of the set, lyrically renamed ‘Leap to the Limelight’. As Gilby explained later, she contacted Harrell to ask his permission for this project, and he was very happy – he only asked that she also rename the songs as her own. Therefore, every tune on Aurora has two names, and the reinterpretation of Harrell’s original work only adds to their beauty. During Friday’s performance, Gilby’s capacity to paint a picture with words was demonstrated on songs like ‘Buffalo Wings’, which she renamed ‘The All-Night Diner’, taking the audience to a smoky diner in the American south. The reinterpretation on songs like ‘Scene’, ‘Sail Away’ and ‘Moon Alley’ also proved her capacity to emotionally connect with the music and add her own experiences to Harrell’s music. ‘Scene’ became the beautiful love song ‘Your Dear Heart, My Dear Heart’, and ‘Sail Away’ became ‘A Momentary Place of Peace’. These ballads were played beautifully by the band, featuring tasteful solos from Dennis on flugelhorn, and Williams on guitar. The way in which Gilby established the feeling behind the music, and the band reflected this back to her, was really special. 

‘Moon Alley’ was particularly interesting lyrically, because Gilby was thinking about Harrell himself as she wrote the lyrics to the piece. She explained during the performance that Harrell lived a ‘double life’ of sorts, and that he was a mystery to many until he built trust with them. Renamed ‘Shadowed in Solitude’, the piece had an air of mystery to it which was reinforced by Gilby’s lyrics, but which was moving in the context. The band were extremely sensitive in their playing on this track, listening intently to one another – Champion also featured with a bass solo, emphasising the subtlety of the piece. Even though the gig was virtual, as an audience we got the feeling of being at a live gig; the improvisational elements inherent to jazz music also really helped with that sense of being present and in the moment. Being able to hear Gilby’s commentary and insight into the music also helped with this sense of experiencing something unique, and really made the audience want to dig into the music itself. 

As the evening progressed, Gilby explained the reason she was drawn to Harrell’s music in the first place. Because his trumpet melodies are so melodic, they are extremely singable and ‘vocal-friendly’, even though the rest of the music is very complex. This was made evident on songs like ‘The Water’s Edge’, ‘Angela’ and ‘April Mist’, which were all skilfully reinterpreted by Gilby. Finally, Friday’s performance came to a close with the album’s title track ‘Aurora’. In contrast to the very melodic pieces, ‘Aurora’ featured a melody which was more complex, yet expertly navigated by Gilby and her lyrical ideas. The groove on this final piece was a great addition to the set, and featured a beautiful flugel intro from Dennis and a shredding solo from Williams: the performance ended with a bang.

‘Aurora with Zoë Gilby and Noel Dennis’ was a pleasure to watch, and a great livestream performance. Featuring some incredible solo playing from Williams, Champion, Dennis and Morgan, the band proved their capabilities as both soloists and ensemble players. It’s extremely valuable as a band to have the sensitivity needed for such a smooth and engaging performance – you can tell they have played together many times. And of course, Gilby’s vocals tied the whole performance together. Aurora is such a great concept for an album, and a lyricist like Gilby is the perfect match for Harrell’s melodies. A thoroughly enjoyable evening and an intriguing performance!

You can buy Zoë Gilby’s new album Aurora here.

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