Trudy Kerr – beguiling songbook renditions and skilful vocalese

    The Australian singer arrived in London in 1990 and has done well with a sage repertoire drawing on the songbook and instrumental material

    Trudy Kerr at The Watermill, Dorking in March 2017. Photo © Brian O'Connor

    Arriving from Australia in 1990 Trudy Kerr soon established herself on the UK jazz scene as a highly sensitive performer with a delicate and quite beguiling approach to a lyric. On several well-received recordings she has found common cause with Mulgrew Miller, Jan Lundgren, Georgie Fame, Bob Dorough, Michael Garrick, Jamie Cullum and Acker Bilk to name just a few. She draws inspiration from the songbook repertoire together with frequent salutes to jazz classics by Chick Corea, Horace Silver, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Fats Waller. She is adept at the difficult art of vocalese, not only as a performer but also as an innovative writer. Her abilities in this challenging field call to mind the godfather of the idiom, Eddie Jefferson, as well as King Pleasure, Annie Ross and Jon Hendricks.

    Trudy began her professional career in 1980 when she was just 17, working seven nights a week with a trio in a Brisbane restaurant. She remained there for about two years “singing just about everything”. Her first introduction to the jazz repertoire was when the pianist asked her to learn Chick Corea’s Spain, “which was pretty difficult”. She went on to buy Echoes Of An Era by Chaka Khan (a personal favourite) because she saw that Chick Corea was on the date along with Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. One of the selections is Take The A Train. Much later she realised where Khan got her approach when she heard Betty Roche’s famous and quite idiosyncratic version with Duke Ellington. In a 2011 Jazzwise interview she said: “This was the record that really started me on the road to being a jazz singer.” Apart from a long residency in Vanuatu in the South Pacific she continued working close to home before deciding to come to London.

    She started working for Acker Bilk as his secretary in his Carlisle Street office across the road from the Pizza Express in Dean Street. He was “fun to work for” and she occasionally sang with his band. “They put on a great show even though I wasn’t really into that style of music.” Trudy was with him for about two years until he closed the office after he decided to work a little less. She did a post-graduate course at the Guildhall for about a year, which is when she started working in local clubs. One of her regular venues was the 606 club in Chelsea, which is where Ronnie Scott heard her. He asked the owner Steve Rubie for her telephone number and the next morning Pete King called with the offer of a week at the club. “It was pretty daunting but it went well.”

    In 1998 she recorded Trudy which was her first CD for the Jazzizit label. She handles the subtle tempo changes on Just One Of Those Things with aplomb and her Get Out Of Town is full of dark, brooding mystery. Acker Bilk joins her for a charming I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me and the prodigiously talented Mornington Lockett adds his considerable presence to The Song Is You and No More Blues. It’s nice to hear Buddy Johnson’s Since I Fell For You, which he had introduced with Ella, his sister, back in 1945. It’s not a blues but Trudy’s soulful, down-home performance – worthy of an Ernestine Anderson – almost makes it one.

    Two years later she did Day Dream with Mulgrew Miller. “I loved his playing so I sent him two of my CDs when he was at Ronnie’s and he agreed to do it.” They do Polka Dots And Moonbeams in 5/4, which works really well. You Don’t Know What Love Is and Day Dream too are both perfect vehicles for her intimate contralto and she is at her most wistful on Noel Coward’s hymn to the lovelorn, Mad About The Boy. One of the highlights is the hip Small Day Tomorrow by Bob Dorough and Fran Landesman, which benefits from some extrovert Roy Eldridge-style trumpet from Guy Barker. Mulgrew Miller said: “I’m delighted she chose me to accompany her in this project. She will win many fans in the years to come.”

    In 2001 she recorded her Chet Baker tribute, My Old Flame. Several titles are based on his solos with Gerry Mulligan’s original quartet and Derek Nash on baritone and Dick Pearce on trumpet perform their roles as to the manner born. “I was always a Chet Baker fan and as a singer it was interesting doing three-part harmony. We’ve done lots of gigs featuring that material.” Trudy added an inventive lyric to Chet’s chorus on Bernie’s Tune and the group faithfully recreate Mulligan’s laid-back chart on Makin’ Whoopee, including the tricky but expertly performed coda. On Do It The Hard Way she scats Chet’s original solo in unison with her husband Geoff Gascoyne on the bass. The apparent simplicity of the line here adds to its charm. She also takes a gentle stroll through You Make Me Feel So Young with Georgie Fame who added words to Chet’s scat chorus doubled here by Pearce’s trumpet. Hats off incidentally to Sebastiaan de Krom (a big Chet Baker fan) for his exemplary drum-work on the album.

    Two years later she was invited to appear with Frank Griffith’s nonet on The Coventry Suite. He had been very impressed when he heard her at the 606 club so he asked her to perform I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart, Ode To Billie Joe and So In Love for the session. She had been working on the Porter classic for some time before the recording as it was a particular favourite. She later worked with the nonet at the Pizza On The Park and The Watermill in Dorking.

    The inspiration behind her 2004 Cloudburst release was John Coltrane’s Moment’s Notice. On the date she also performs Joy Spring, Funkallero, Ruby My Dear, Weird Nightmare and Jeannine. Thanks to contrafacts, old standards never die, as can be heard on Misty Night, a.k.a. September In The Rain. Cloudburst was a 1954 hit by Claude Cloud And His Thunderclaps featuring Sam “The Man” Taylor on tenor. Jon Hendricks added words six months later. Trudy negotiates the tongue-twisting lyric based on Taylor’s famous solo with Annie Ross-like panache, despite a tempo of 64 bpm.

    Her 2007 Déjà Vu recording, with the hugely talented Jan Lundgren, benefits from a particularly imaginative choice of repertoire. It opens with an intimate reading of Out Of This World and the CD title is an attractive Isaac Hayes original introduced by Dionne Warwick in 1979. There is a brace of Cy Coleman goodies (Witchcraft and You Fascinate Me So) together with an uptempo Nearness Of You that might have surprised but surely would have pleased the great Hoagy Carmichael. Jobim’s obscure Two Kites is a gem and the inimitable Bob Dorough guests on his own Up Jumped A Bird with Trudy handling her part with almost Anita O’Day flamboyance.

    Her 2018 Take Five CD featuring the music of Paul Desmond is her most recent recording. “He appealed to me because his lines are so singer-friendly and his language so clear.” Unfortunately there were problems with Desmond’s estate which has prevented its commercial availability but she is allowed to sell it on her live performances. (The CD is also available by emailing Better Move On, The One I Love and Take Five all feature her compelling vocalese together with some inventive scat choruses on Count To Ten, Perfect Morning and Nobody Knew. Desmond usually avoided contrafacts but his Wendy, based on For All We Know, is a particularly attractive example of the idiom. The release benefits from some well-crafted contributions from the Seattle-born Allison Neale, who gets an ethereal almost Desmond-like sound on alto. Apart from her popular Chet Baker and Paul Desmond sets, Trudy also performs themed evenings devoted to the music of Doris Day, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli.

    Trudy Kerr’s discography of 13 CDs reflects an impressive body of work. She really is a treat that should not be missed and Contemplation: The Very Best Of Trudy Kerr would be a very good place to start for those unfamiliar with her.

    Selected discography
    Judy (1998 – Jazzizit JITCD 9817)
    Day Dream (2000 – Jazzizit JITCD 0023)
    My Old Flame (2001 – Jazzizit JITCD 0228)
    Cloudburst (2004 – Jazzizit JITCD 0538)
    Déjà Vu (2007 – Jazzizit JITCD 0746)
    Contemplation: The Very Best Of Trudy Kerr (2014 – Jazzizit JITCD 1463)
    Take Five (2018 – Jazzizit 1880)