It's been a while since Zoe Gilby's last solo album, the excellent Twelve Stories (late 2013). Since then she has been busy with a number of different projects, including her Pannonica project, in which she performs lyrical interpretations of Monk classics, a voice and double bass duo, performing with husband Andy Champion, and Beatles Bossa and Beyond - to name but a few. And then, like Newcastle buses, no doubt, two albums come along at once, with lockdown partly to blame, of course. First up was the debut album by Living In Shadows, which combined a more pop-oriented sound with elements of prog, and now a new solo album, Aurora.
Aurora is closer in spirit to the Pannonica project than her last solo album, with Gilby adding words to the compositions of US trumpet player and composer Tom Harrell. She is joined by a superb band; trumpet and flugelhorn player Noel Dennis, double bassist Andy Champion, guitarist Mark Williams and drummer Russ Morgan.
I must admit that whilst I was familiar with Harrell's playing, I only knew a handful of his compositions, but that does not detract from the enjoyment of this new album. Harrell has always been a very lyrical musician, so there's plenty to appreciate in these tunes, and there's a depth and intelligence to Gilby's lyrics which make the project a good fit.
The album opens with the gently swinging Leap To The Limelight, in which guitarist Mark Williams plays a prominent role with his fluid playing, before Noel Dennis delivers a delightful solo. The clarity of Gilby's singing is a delight, as it is throughout. It gets the album off to a strong start, but The All Night Diner is even better, with Gilby adding a nice touch of Americana to the lyrics, referencing "a neon sign, flickering out of time, at the roadside", before going on to describe the diner itself.
Your Dear Heart. My Dear Heart, as the title suggests, is an elegant ballad. Williams again plays strong support, with Morgan switching to brushes for this tune. Dennis captures the spirit of Harrell well, with a soft, delicate solo. Lovely stuff!
Forget The Past sees the band pick up the pace, with Dennis also mixing things up, switching to muted trumpet here. Gilby hands the faster pace well, too, her lyrics gelling well, and her vocal impressive. A Momentary Place Of Peace was another favourite, with a dreamy intro from Williams giving way to a gentle bossa nova feel.
This Is New starts strongly, with a more thrusting beat, but halfway through move into a more fusion-oriented sound. Gilby responds to the change with some wordless vocal as the song comes to a close. It's good to break things up, of course, but I'm not sure the fusion section worked for me. I preferred Ebb And Flow, which demonstrates the elegance of Gilby's lyrics and her strong scat-singing skills too.
Shadowed In Solitude is a quietly reflective piece, with Gilby's singing really impressing, and some lovely interplay between Andy Champion and Noel Dennis on muted trumpet. The more strident Celestial Delight brings the album to a close, with Champion and Morgan underpinning this tune to good effect, and Gilby's returning to a wordless vocal as the tune comes to a sudden end.
Aurora is an ambitious project, as it can be challenging to write lyrics to existing tunes, but Gilby has done a stellar job; the lyrics are always interesting, and singing delivers them to great effect, clear and concise. Noel Dennis is worth singling out from the superb band. He was evidently a fan of Harrell's compositions, and plays splendidly throughout, helping Gilby and the band to deliver an album that Harrell himself must be thrilled by.
Aurora is released on 16th April.