Ice cream during the interval? Not your usual Harmonie concert for certain. The 20th Bonn Schumann Festival was paying a rare visit to the Endenich venue better known for Rock, Pop and Blues. I think it’s fair to say though that it wasn’t only the refreshments that were cool on Friday night as the crystal clear voice of Dutch Jazz Lady Fay Claassen, with a world class backing band to guide it, headed like an exocet missile straight into our ears and clean through to our hearts.
What would Robert Schumann, buried a short distance away with wife Clara, have made of it I wonder? The most celebrated music critic of his time was staring curiously down Andy Warhol like from three portrait banners on the stage. He would certainly have enjoyed the painstaking way that Karel Boehlee picked out every note on his grand piano, often with a wincing expression that suggested he was deciding whether to cut the red or the blue wire on a time bomb. When the note ‘exploded’ just as he wanted though the look of pure happiness on his face was one to savour.
I couldn’t see the face of guitarist Peter Tiehues from my seat towards the bar, but the notes were also ringing out perfect and true even on the fastest of fretboard runs, Rattled off with a Gatling gun’s precision. Over on electric bass guitar I could see Theo De Jong’s face and he too was running every note through with calculation of it’ effect. Not trusting his fingers or even his amplifier his voice rang out as he physically sang accompaniment to his beautiful solos – like a human guitar tuner. Perfectionists to a man? Well they did have quite a perfect female voice to accompany.
Fay Claassen’s voice was famously compared by the music magazine ‘Cadence’ to the acting of Audrey Hepburn.”Elegant and graceful”. It’s a description too of the lady herself this evening dressed crisply in black and white – preferred ‘colour’ scheme of Jazz over the ages, and a perfect description of her voice as well, both modern and timeless ; an instrument sharp as a scalpel yet soft as silk.
The material she draws from on this balmy Bonn evening is a mixture of original and traditional. When it’s the latter it’s always as a starting point for her own interpretation as the excellent double CD tribute to Chet Baker made in 2005 proves. On that basis Leni Stern’s ‘Sandbox’ is aptly named as she uses it as inspiration for the title track of her latest disc ‘Luck Child’. Her take of the perennially popular ‘Blackbird’ sweeps and glides like the bird itself, helped on its journey by a band for whom ‘talented’ seems an underestimation.
The feeling and control from pianist Karel Boehlee is a joy to behold on Enrico Morricone’s ‘Cinema Paradiso’. Husband Paul Heller is a welcome special guest this evening with his tenor saxophone. What was that I noticed at the Bonn Youth Orchestra concert last week? so many saxophone players? Well this one ‘got the girl’, need I say more?
Well yes, I should say more. Heller plainly also wrote his way into Fay Claassen’s heart as his own composition for her ‘Reach for the Rose’ beautifully illustrates. Surprisingly, the elegant composition ‘Fay’ is not from his pen but was written for Claassen by the late legendary trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. Clearly Fay Claassen is not only a great singer but also a great inspiration to others.
Someone who has also been a great inspiration to others is Paul Simon and Fay is one of those inspired by possibly America’s greatest living songwriter. As with all her ‘covers’ though Claassen is not content to replay, but reworks Simon’s ‘One Trick Pony’. As she agrees when I speak briefly to her later, Simon is not someone to ‘copy’ anyway, you are doomed to come off worse! In this instance the transition is into a gently funky offering where each band member gets to ‘interpret within the interpretation’ – I’m beginning to like this thing they call Jazz more and more by the minute!
At concerts end Claassen and Heller are presented with the fascimilie page of a Schumann composition and I find myself looking to the backstage at those three giant Warhol style images of the man still staring inquisitively down. Is that a smile of contentment I see at the corner of each giant mouth or a trick of the lighting?