Friday night was the opening night of this year’s ESG London Jazz Festival, and it seemed only too appropriate that one of the artists being showcased was Fiona Ross, who has done so much for the UK jazz scene and beyond through her pioneering with Women in Jazz Media. To mark the event, Fiona appeared with a bigger band who filled the stage at Hammersmith’s Jazz Café Posk; the band featured Fiona herself on piano, her former students Derek Daley on bass, Gibbi Bettini on guitar, Marley Drummond on drums, the more established horn section of Dave Boa on trumpet and Loren Hignell on saxophone and flute, and rising star Ashaine White on backing vocals.
Fiona played a selection of songs from all of six of her albums, as well as a couple of new tunes from her forthcoming – as yet untitled – new album.
The band opened with More Time from her excellent fifth album, Red Flags and High Heels. The vocal was a little low in the mix for the first song of the evening, but it was clear that the band was tight, with some fine interplay between the saxophone and trumpet, and a strong solo by Dave Boa.
The sound issues had been rectified by the second song, a new tune called I Don’t Know. The song had a slight Latin vibe, driven by a strong piano hook from Fiona, and sounded catchy even on its first airing. There was a tasteful solo from the versatile guitarist Gibbi Bettini, followed by a blistering trumpet solo by Boa, who impressed throughout.
The Mating Game, one of the highlights of Fiona’s second album, featured Mexican drummer Migdalia Van Der Hoven as a special guest. Her crisp grooves brought the sparse intro to a new level, but even when the band came in, they still allowed space for Fiona’s pithy lyrics to shine.
For My Dad was one of the highlights of the first set, and saw the band stripped back to just Fiona on piano and Dave Boa on trumpet. With heartfelt lyrics like, “You said I could do this, if I worked hard,” Fiona admitted that it was a hard song to play in front of an audience. She delivered a beautiful solo, and it was easy to understand why this has become her most popular song.
It's The Small Things was another strong new track, with a hook that really draws you in; the tune changed tempo half way through, with the second part featuring some funky guitar, and saxophonist Loren Hignell switching to baritone to good effect.
Don’t Say, from the album Fierce and Non Compliant, was another highlight from the first set, and was played as a duo with bass player Derek Daley. I thought it Fiona’s best vocal of the night, simply oozing soul, whilst Daley played the electric bass as a lead, which was sublime. I Followed My Heart was sung as a duo with Ashaine White, who is definitely a name to watch while the groove-laden Busy Always Busy brought the first set to a close, Fiona keeping the band on their toes by calling out the soloists to play.
The second set opened with the autobiographical Reach Me, played solo. The song sounded more theatrical, rather than jazzy, and showcased Fiona’s roots in theatre work. The playful I Want To Know More was another new song, which saw Loren Hignell on flute trading ideas with Dave Boa.
I Always Saw The Red Flags was stunning, such a gorgeous tune and lyric, and featured Boa on muted trumpet, and a lovely bass line from Derek Daley. Muted trumpet also featured on The Choices You Made from Fiona’s latest offering, 7 Songs in 7 Days, which showcased her more acoustic, stripped-back side.
Migdalia Van Der Hoven re-joined the band for I Can’t Help You Baby and Without You. With no disrespect to Marley Drummond, who was excellent throughout, Van Der Hoven lifted the band to a new level again; her playing was absolutely mesmerizing, and it was hard to take your eyes off of her. Without You featured a memorable piano hook from Fiona, picked up by the horn section, and produced a huge roar from the crowd in response to one of the highlights of the night. The evening ended with the funk-driven You Are Like Poison which brought the evening to a rousing end, with another great horn riff from Boa and Hignell, some sharp drum fills from Drummond and a series of strong solos from the band.
It was a great way to start this year’s London Jazz Festival. Fiona’s music is hard to define, as she rarely plays straight-ahead jazz, but with elements of pop-jazz, funk and stripped-back simplicity, too, there was so much to enjoy, all bound together by Fiona’s boundless energy and heart-on-sleeve lyrics. A musical feast, from soup to nuts!