Cindy Douglas and Konrad Wiszniewski bring spirit of Lady Day and Prez to life

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Somewhere along the line I have missed out on the music of Billie Holiday. I have never seen the film Lady Sings the Blues, and while I am familiar with most of the tunes, and have a huge respect for Billie Holiday in the history and development of jazz, and particularly vocal jazz, the music has passed me by.

Jazz singer, Aberdeen-based Cindy Douglas, with a brilliant album of her own released in 2012 My New Jive, took the brave step with two early afternoon sets on a grey, haar-riven Edinburgh day to deliver her own delicate, tuneful and at times different take on the songs of Lady Day.

In the company of Konrad Wiszniewski (tenor) and with a backing trio of Iain Matheson (piano) Peter Lowitt (bass) and Bill Kemp (drums), she not only sang the songs but also told the tale of Holiday and Lester Young and how their unique partnership produced a special blend of heartfelt, often poignant music and lyrics that shone from when they first met in 1934 and developed following their earliest recording of All of Me in 1937.

Douglas does not hold back pushing herself to find new angles in the melody and in expression, supported by a very tight back-line with the lyrical counterpoint and nuances of Wiszniewski suiting her style perfectly.

The set included many classics, among them All of Me, Easy Living, Body and Soul, I Can’t Give You Anything but Love and Don’t Explain. I just loved Cindy’s version of Lover Man – not the wistful and wondering vibe to the song that we’ve become used to but instead a more physical, funked-up and passionate version. Body and Soul opened with just Cindy’s vocal and the bass, and went on to demonstrate a real solidity in the back-line over which vocalist and sax could excel. You’ve Changed adopted a more Latin pattern, again a contrast to the rest of the set, and in the closing Don’t Explain I’m sure I heard from Wiszniewski, possibly inadvertently, a brief reference to Careless Whisper.

In keeping with the originals (a number of which I’ve subsequently now listened to again) delivery throughout left plenty of space – the extra instrument – and more often than not, even on the quicker numbers, that typical behind-the-beat feel so evident in Holiday’s recordings.

Bravest move of all however was, on this visit to the heart of the Jazz and Blues Festival, the introduction of Karen Marshalsay on Celtic harp for an extremely moving duet of the powerful protest song Strange Fruit, with its horrific lyric and highly charged message. Cindy sang this to highlight the dreadful and continuing abuse of women and girls in India, and so fitting with Holiday’s original lyric.

Bold, powerful, and pulling no punches – this was a truly touching performance – with a strong message to take away. Excellent.

Cindy Douglas with Konrad Wiszniewski was at the Tron Kirk Edinburgh, Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, Saturday 19 July 2014.