Review: Nicky Schrire’s Freedom Flight

I don’t write very many record reviews these days, but this is an album that really hit me. Full disclosure: I know Schrire personally.

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Nicky Schrire’s Freedom Flight

From the first moments of Nicky Schrire’s Freedom Flight, it’s clear that this is no ordinary jazz vocal album. The album beings with an example of the fearlessness and daring that have become hallmarks of Schrire’s live performances, as she sings a stark, haunting, wordless opening to what becomes a captivating version of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.”

Schrire, who hails from Capetown, London and New York, fills her debut recording with moments that remind us of the power of the human voice and its ability to tell a story. She does this through arrangements of well known songs like Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” and the aforementioned “Blackbird,” coupled with her own original compositions and works that aren’t often sung in this context.

Schrire is equally at home as an instrumentalist (e.g. her wordless vocal with the band at the end of her song “Journey”) or out front carrying the emotional core of the song. Her pop-inflected voice brings all her repertoire firmly into the modern era, even when she’s singing a standard like Lerner and Loewe’s heart-rending “If Ever I Would Leave You.” But don’t misunderstand, Schrire has an obvious grounding in the tradition and lots of chops – this isn’t a pop singer dabbling in the jazz world. Schrire is also a skilled arranger – clever without being precious, always serving the song.

The core band members – pianist Nick Paul, bassist Sam Anning and drummer Jake Goldbas – bring sympathetic ears and a shared understand of Schrire’s aesthetic. Paul’s piano is always right where it needs to be and he’s an accomplished soloist, too (hear him on “É Preciso Perdoar”, for example). Anning and Goldbas, meanwhile, are skilled at laying down a groove (“Ode To A Folk Song”) or creating a spacious environment for Schrire to expand into (“Cosmic Love”). There are standout solo performances by several other musicians, including saxophonist Paul Jones, who shines on “Ode,” clarinetist Jay Rattman, percussionist Brian Adler and one of Schrire’s mentors, pianist and vocalist Peter Eldridge.

It’s Schrire’s gorgeous singing, though, that holds everything together. The listener is drawn again and again to moments like the switch to English on “Sleep Away,” when Schrire’s voice seems to dance out of the speakers and fill the room. Or her arresting and childlike performance of Loudon Wainwright’s “The Swimming Song,” accompanied by Adler’s earthy cajon and Schrire’s own overdubbed backing vocals.

The highest compliment that can paid to this record is that it doesn’t sound like a debut. This is an album by a talented, confident singer with a fresh approach and the voice to bring her ideas to life.

NOTE: Freedom Flight will be available in the US on May 22 and in South Africa on July 1. Schrire will be performing a CD release show at Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City on Wednesday, June 6 at 8:30 p.m.

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