Cabaret Festival

Cabaret Festival Review: Emma Pask – AC-CENT-TCHU-ATES the Positive

Hallelujah for a great singer and her ‘two bank managers and a bikie’ band

Hallelujah for a great singer and her ‘two bank managers and a bikie’ band

Presented by Adelaide Festival Centre
Reviewed 20 June 2024

The way vocalist Emma Pask works with her jazz trio is a copybook example of collaborative music-making between friends and equals. From the first two words she sings to her final bow, this unassuming woman in a black cocktail-length dress scattered with gold sequins holds the room in thrall simply by working as a member of a jazz quartet. 

The first two words Pask sings are “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”, at the start of Arlen’s 1930 song Get Happy. For the next hour and a quarter of this generous set, we in the audience have cause to echo her words. Collaborating with (because it was much, much more than merely being ‘accompanied by’) Dr Kevin Hunt (piano), Phil Stack (acoustic bass) and Tim Firth (drums), Pask sings a selection of Harold Arlen songs, reminding us that Arlen’s place in the Great American Songbook is secure. Everyone knows more Arlen classics than they know they know (if you know what I mean). In one of her between-song chats, Pask quotes Irving Berlin’s graceful comment on the occasion of Harold Arlen’s death: “He wasn’t as well-known as some of us, but he was a better songwriter than most of us, and he will be missed by all of us.”

Pask’s voice is incisive, accurate, bright, neat and focussed. Her intonation is micro-precise; her jazz styling is both idiosyncratic and respectful of the music. She scats at Gatling-gun intensity. It is a constant pleasure to hear a performer who is at ease with her material and consistently gleeful at the prospect of sharing it with her audience. She is a world-class jazz singer.

The playlist is terrific, and the packed Banquet Room keeps reacting as favourite after favourite is rolled out. There’s a slow rubato start to Let’s Fall In Love which rockets into a 

driving up-tempo featuring a frankly amazing piano solo by Hunt. Over The Rainbow has to be done, of course. Pask, accompanied only by piano, sings it sincerely and clearly. Hunt’s piano takes on an orchestral quality, as he reimagines the harmonic structure of this familiar tune.

One For My Baby gets the steam treatment, with Pask’s authoritative sound accompanied only by Phil Stack on double bass. The performance is essentially a duet for voice and bass.  Both Pask and Stack turn in sizzling solos, whilst handling chromatic key changes. The treatment of Blues In The Night is humid and swamp-flavoured, with Pask easily encompassing the considerable vocal range of this demanding classic. What Hunt does on piano is both mind-bending and time-bending.  The sardonic Down With Love is taken at a breakneck pace, with Stack’s bass lines providing speedway-quality thrills.

Between most songs, Pask chats with us, telling stories about Harold Arlen’s life and work. But this is no boring history lesson.  She communicates brilliantly with the audience by being both sincere and conversational. That she sings like a woman possessed and yarns easily with us between numbers adds to the relaxed artistry of the whole. 

A word about the drums. Tim Firth, while never taking a flashy solo or even pulling focus, nevertheless makes it possible for all the other three musicians to perform. Firth weaves the frames on which all rely. And he is that most precious of commodities, a sensitive drummer.

The sincerity and respect with which these four excellent performers present Arlen’s writing is particularly heartening. It was especially good to hear the whole of each song, not just three runs of the chorus, which has become common practice.

At the end, all performers take a bow to rapturous applause.  It is fitting that Pask’s three collaborators, looking like two bank managers and a bikie, stand hand in hand with her.  Together, all four made great music.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Photo credit: Claudio Raschella 

Venue: Banquet Room, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: ended

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