Cool Jazz meets the Firegirl

German Tommy Schneller and Canadian Layla Zoe were both at the Harmonie this week to introduce their new CD’s.  Also alongside was the drummer, bass player and guitarist on both CD’s a certain renowned Bluesman named Henrik Freischlader.  Ever seen a man play three instruments at the same time?  Me neither.  Even Hendrik wasn’t up to that trick.  He did assemble a starry set of musicians for a special night of music though -with the cool jazz of Schneller and fiery Blues voice of Firegirl Lady Zoe shining brightest of all.

It’s certainly good marketing strategy when you’re the shining star of German Blues and own a record label to not only take two label acts on the road, but also play in the band.  I’m sure a lot of people will be at these shows to see the bass player. But anyone who knows Henrik Freischlader even slightly will know that’s not his style.

“It’s simply fun” he says when I ask about his exchanging six strings for four.  “And a nice change not to be the centre of attention?” I suggest.  He smiles to that one. The same broad smile was on his face a half hour before as Jens Filser pulled off a dazzling solo to accompany Layla Zoe’s thoughtful ballad ‘Black Oil’  It’s easy to see why the former Anne Haigis guitar man was a ‘must have’ for the guitar parts on this tour.  Henrik gets to enjoy a great solo without the work of creating it?  That brings an even bigger smile when I suggest it.

Freischladers name on the bill can’t change the fact it’s a Monday evening though, or that another popular Bluesman, Texan Eric Sardinas, is due on this very stage in barely 24 hours time.   Even getting Clapton himself on triangle wouldn’t have filled the house on such an evening I suspect.  As it turns out though the bistro table/Jazz Club atmosphere made it the perfect setting for those who did decide that these two fresh (to the Harmonie anyway) faces would make for an enjoyable evenings music.

The evenings first half was in the safe and ‘saxy’ hands of Tommy Schneller.  Some people just look like they were born to play a particular instrument, and Tommy is one of them.  Don’t let the saxophone fool you though.  As Tommy muses to me later with a resigned sigh:  “As soon as people see a saxophone they assume its a Jazz band!”.  Without the horn section from the CD the music is however noticably Bluesier than on its round silver parent.  Or maybe the presence at the back of Germany’s premier Blueser on bass sways my decision, but this was more Blues than Jazz, and maybe even more funk than Blues, with a good dollop of soul in the mix too.  All delivered with a polish that left a shine on the faces of everyone in attendance- including the musicians themselves.

Sax appeal - Tommy Schneller

On the subject of polishing and shining, the opener is appropriately titled  ‘Cleaning Lady Blues’ and sets the pace with it’s funky percussion.  Despite the lack of horns from the CD it cruises along in the jaunty way that came to characterise the whole set.  There’s plenty of room for the band to spread out too, especially on slower numbers like ‘Blues for the Ladies’ and ‘Dogs Life’, and just when I thought I’d been listening to some of the best Jazz/Blues I’ve heard for a long time Schneller closes his set with an absolute stunner – the Freischlader classic ‘Get Closer’ with it’s perfect blend of lyrical and musical emotion.  It’s up there with Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ as a song to guarantee a lump in the throat and a flood of memories from love and loved ones lost. Beautiful lyrics like “The only reason for the smile on my face – Is my dream of you in a better place”.   If EC had written it ‘Getting Closer’ would be an international classic now.

Anyway, no time for tears, because the young lady on next is someone I’ve been wanting to see since I met her at an Ana Popovic concert last year.  She had no CD’s on her then so I’ve been waiting (impatiently) to hear the self-styled ‘Firegirl’ ever since.  She’s competing in a flooded market right now it seems.  I’ve seen Meena and Dana Fuchs and Ndidi O showing there is no end of ‘new Janis Joplins’ around.  The young Canadian has a confident air about her as she takes the stage.  Ably  supported by Tom Waits and Frank Zappa tattooed on her right and left legs respectively, two guys who are not short of musical power themselves.  Maybe it’s the ink from their tattooed energy in her veins?  Does anyone still use the word ‘sassy’?  if not then it will have to be re-invented just to describe Layla Zoe’s presence and power.  This girl doesn’t need a microphone to be heard at the back of the hall – and that’s a compliment.  When she sings “Give it to me” you really feel like she’s making an offer you daren’t refuse.

A word of compliment here is due to Jens Filser.  I know him as a fine acoustic accompaniment to Anne Haigis but tonight after already having offered up a fine Jazz tinged backing for Tommy Schneller;  with Layla Zoe he’s changed hats once again and is playing Blues Rock like it’s all he’s ever known.  When Layla slips into ‘Lets get Crazy’ Jens slips just as easily into a BB King swing rhythm.  Back on ‘Rock n Roll Guitar Man’ and no guesses what style he hits with ease. Phenomenal!

Sex appeal - Layla Zoe

Probably the standout track for everyone this evening in Layla’s set is the self penned ‘Black Oil’,  inspired as she points out, by the man-made mess that left hundreds of miles of sea polluted and even more hundreds of seabirds and fish dead not so long ago.  The deep brooding bass makes this track so much more penetrating up close and live than on disc.  A guitar solo to kill for on top and you have a stunner of a live number.

The Janis comparisons make a song title like ‘Hippie Chick’ seem appropriate.  Not surprisingly the ‘Hippie Chick’ of the song has red hair! – like the lady singing the line  “She’s got no time for lies, so now she can touch the sky” – certainly this music is as honest and uncompromising as it gets.  Will Layla Zoe ‘Touch the Sky’?  on this performance, despite the competition, she is set to make a very special mark.  Certainly having friends like Henrik Freischlader won’t do any harm either.

A rather special encore rounded off an evening of exceptional musical depth and ability as Tommy Schneller joined Layla for a lively take of Marvin Gaye’s ‘How Sweet it Is’.  The two playfully exchanging chatter – “I love the shirt Tommy”, “Maybe not your size Layla” counters Tommy?” Layla  jokes back to the much taller and, to put it kindly, rounder, Sax man: “Maybe as a nightdress?”.   The joking and bright song are in stark combination to the last encore.  The sparsest of spotlights drizzles weakly onto Jens Filser, clutching the acoustic guitar that I’m most used to seeing him with.  To his left an equally weak spotlight barely makes out the lips of Layla Zoe.  ‘Sleep little Girl’ she pleads plaintively.  The words are like gentle rain falling on the completely silent audience.  Even beer glasses at the bar are stilled.  Just a simple melody and a simple voice.  No, more precisely, just a beautiful melody and a magic voice.  Hear that?  It’s the sound of the Firegirl melting hearts.

And finally, a bit of magic from the show courtesy of Tommy Schneller…

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