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Diane White expresses her love of Sixties music in jazz

Diane White, with Tim Bedner and Mark Fraser
Merrickville's Jazz Fest
Holy Trinity Anglican Church
Saturday, October 17, 2015 – 3:30 p.m.

View photos of Diane White and her trio at MJF 2015

Presenting a jazz concert featuring the music of the Sixties – as vocalist Diane White and her trio did at Merrickville's Jazz Fest – has a number of pitfalls. For example, you have, if anything, far too much to choose from – and no clear focus.

Diane White clearly charmed the audience with the heartfelt feel she gave to the lyrics ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Obviously, the British invasion qualifies, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Kinks and and Cream and many more. Surf music with the Beach Boys. Psychedelic rock with Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Burt Bacharach. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, and Buffalo Springfield. Tiny Tim. Liberace. The Jackson 5, the Supremes, and other Motown groups. Frank Zappa. Broadway show tunes. Protest songs, blues, traditional folk, rock&roll – and did we mention all the great modal jazz, bop, post-bop, soul-jazz, avant-garde jazz and more?

You can't play it all. You can't even be truly representative. You can only pick what you'd like to play – and what works.

With two exceptions, I thought Diane White and her trio made excellent choices for her Sixties show at Merrickville. They picked songs with musical heft, ones which have lasted because they have memorable hooks and well-chosen lyrics, and their melodies insinuate themselves into your brain. Only one was an actual jazz tune, but they generally worked well in the trio's understated jazz arrangements.

White partnered with two well-known Ottawa musicians in this project: Mark Fraser on double bass and Tim Bedner on guitar. Bedner in particular has frequently played “new standards” – in other words, jazz versions of music by the Beatles and other more recent pop composers. He provided the multi-layered, inflected arrangement for “Eleanor Rigby” which nicely complemented White's unadorned retelling of the story.

They opened with the Zombies' “Time of the Season”, given a sensitive reading by White's slightly husky vocals. There was a noticeable swing in the accompanying guitar and bass which went well with the lilting quality in White's voice.

I particularly liked the more soulful numbers, including the Jackson 5's “I Want You Back”, with a deep bass intro and a compelling groove on both voice and guitar, and the Bee Gees' “To Love Somebody”. White sang that one gospel-style, calling out on the choruses, with Bedner playing ringing guitar riffs underneath. She clearly charmed the audience with the heartfelt feel she gave to the lyrics.

The Bee Gees song was originally written for soul singer Otis Redding, but he died before he could record it. Even better was White's version of a number Redding is famous for, “I've Been Loving You Too Long”. She let the words ring out like a hymn, pleading at times, and throughout making it sound sincere and deeply felt.

A highlight of the show was Bobby Gentry's cross-over country/pop hit, “Ode to Billie Joe”. White introduced it by explaining the song's complicated history: how, in fact, the recorded version contains less than half (5 out of 11) of the original number of verses. As a singer, she said, she had always wanted to know the real story behind the song's ambiguous ending.

With Bedner and Fraser playing a noticeable and memorable groove underneath, White presented the song conversationally. She gave the words a slightly ironic delivery, contrasting the banality of the dinner conversation with the hints of suicide and guilt – and letting the story spin out relentlessly. It was a very effective rendition, and received strong applause.

Other memorable songs were White's syncopated beat poetry piece, “Tomorrow is a Drag”; and the very catchy “Tainted Love”, which White reminded the audience was first recorded in the Sixties although it only became a monster hit in the 80s.

White noted that “Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood” could be thought of as a love song or a protest against oppression; she let the hurt in the lyrics sing out, underlined by the evocative blues feel of Bedner's arrangement. She gave the song a less anguished and more restrained rendition than Nina Simone's, but it had a thoughtful validity of its own.

What didn't work was “Paint It Black”, the Rolling Stones song which White said she picked as a sister song to “Eleanor Rigby”. That song is a tale of personal agony and desperation; it demands an urgent, raw delivery. White's clear, crystalline style didn't allow her to give the song the depth of feeling it needed.

And the Blood Sweat & Tears hit, “Spinning Wheel”, unfortunately failed because of technical issues. The percussive spinner rattle that White was using for emphasis during the choruses kept sliding on her silk dress. I had seen it work well against a less slippery fabric in a previous JazzNHouse house concert; here it flew off and didn't make the proper spinning sounds. It distracted her and made the audience laugh at one point, although they strongly applauded when she finished the song.

What really worked in this show was White's connection to the audience and how she transmitted her the love of these songs. Her intimate, warm approach got audience members really interested in the stories behind the songs, and earned the trio a standing ovation at the end. But keeping the show inside the required 75 minutes was clearly a strain. Several times she said “I'll try not to talk to you too much”. There was also the added stress that this concert was being recorded for a possible live album.

At the JazzNHouse house concert, which was two sets long and included more songs, she had more time to talk about the songs – although she said she was still holding herself back from all the background she could enthusiastically add. The longer concert was more interesting and more relaxed.

Another reason why this show worked was the familiarity of the songs. This audience grew up with this music – even those who were born well after the Sixties. Just as previous generations knew Broadway tunes, they knew these songs, and heard them in the new jazz arrangements with added freshness and warmth.

I hope White stages a reprise of this concert in Ottawa when she returns from her far-flung tours. Almost all the songs are well worth hearing again – but in a longer show, please, with a bit more talking.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set list:

  • The Time of the Season (The Zombies)
  • Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles)
  • I Want You Back (The Jackson 5)
  • To Love Somebody (The Bee Gees)
  • Ode to Billie Joe (Bobby Gentry)
  • Tomorrow is a Drag (Diane White)
  • Paint It Black (The Rolling Stones)
  • I've Been Loving You Too Long (Otis Redding)
  • Tainted Love (Gloria Jones)
  • Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (Nina Simone / The Animals)
  • Spinning Wheel (Blood Sweat & Tears)
  • These Eyes (The Guess Who)
  • For What It's Worth (Buffalo Springfield)

View photos of Diane White and her trio at MJF 2015

Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's reviews of concerts at the 2015 Merrickville's Jazz Fest, and interviews with musicians appearing at the festival, linked to from our main festival article:

Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's interview with Diane White: