Originally from Australia, City Music Foundation artist Nishla Smith travelled via Berlin to her current Manchester base, and has written for Manchester Collective, Opera North, Jazz North and the Manchester Jazz Festival, as well as co-founding theatre company Ulita. Her influences include Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Carly Simon and Carole King, and Cécile McLorin Salvant and Alice Zawadski.
Luxuriantly packaged in a colourful gatefold sleeve and a generous illustrated lyric booklet, the singer-songwriter’s debut concept album is set over a single night, and explores various states of insomnia through four sections, each introduced by a scene-setting interlude. That may sound a tad pretentious but, make no mistake, there’s some great music here.
Recorded at Giant Wafer Studios in Wales, Friends sees her joined by four of Manchester’s best: trumpeter Aaron Wood (Artephis, Twisted Tubes, The Mirror Ball Test, The Easy Rollers); pianist Richard Jones (Beats & Pieces Big Band, Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat, Graham South Quartet); bassist Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley (Caoilfhionn Rose, Skeltr, Kaleidoscope Orchestra, Manchester Concert Orchestra) and drummer Johnny Hunter (Fragments, Pale Blue Dot, Backlash).
After the dreamy vocal and piano of opener Twilight, the title track continues with Smith’s fragile, tremulous voice, before erupting into a classic jazz arrangement which sees piano and horn fencing over a busy, loping bass-and-drum accompaniment. This sets the pattern for well-performed, relaxed introductions to more upbeat numbers, with Wood and Jones shining on Julian, while Cavanagh-Brierley opens the saturnine Midnight with some tricky fingerwork, underscoring Smith’s reflective vocals, which continue on the slow, bluesy Home.
Starlight is a pleasant, uplifting mid-tempo number on which the singer attains new range, while her interpretative skills take the spotlight for a lovely rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s It Might As Well Be Spring, with its jaunty central bass-and-drum passage. Top track I Want To Make You Happy simply soars with busy horn and piano interplay and Hunter’s fussy drum fills.
This is an attractive, gentle project featuring thoughtful, original story songs performed to cool arrangements which allow the musicians to shine both separately and in the solos. The playing is fine from all concerned, pairing horns and piano over a solid rhythm section, and Smith’s lazy, characterful voice invokes not only Fitzgerald and Holiday but also Eartha Kitt and even Kate Bush, while retaining her own unique sound and narrative. Superior stuff.
Twilight; Friends With Monsters; Julian; Midnight; Starlight; 3.A.M; It Might As Well Be Spring; I Want To Make You Happy; Dawn; Up (48.51)
Smith (v); Aaron Wood (t, flh); Richard Jones (p); Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley (b); Johnny Hunter (d, pc). Llandrindod Wells, Wales, 2021.
Whirlwind Recordings WR4780