Deborah Rose – “Song Be My Soul” Album Review

An impressive body of work with typically immaculate singing from Rose and sympathetic support from a diverse and well chosen cast of musicians.

“Song Be My Soul”

Welsh born, Worcestershire based singer, guitarist and songwriter Deborah Rose has been a frequent presence on the Jazzmann web pages, sometimes under her previous name of Deborah Hodgson. I’ve always been impressed by the purity of her voice which draws from the British and American folk traditions and she has issued a number of successful self released EPs in this vein. However her singing has recently taken a jazzier turn thanks in part to her collaboration with the exceptional young gypsy jazz guitarist Remi Harris as part of his Gypsy Jazz Project group.

Rose is also a great organiser and has helped to promote and facilitate many memorable musical events in her local area, including a concert by folk legend Judy Collins in the beautiful environs of Worcester Cathedral. The self released “Song Be My Soul” represents Roses’s first full length album and was partly financed by a crowd funding campaign as Rose again drew on her entrepreneurial talents, behind the elfin charm there lies an astute business woman.

“Song Be My Soul” draws upon Rose’s love of poetry and literature, besides her original songs there are adapted settings of words by Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake and Christina Rossetti. Rose describes these songs as celebrations of the works of these artists , adding her own words to those of the poets involved but losing nothing of the spirit of the originals. The music owes more to the folk than the jazz tradition but there is an arrangement of the standard “Autumn Leaves” inspired by the version recorded by the late Eva Cassidy, like Judy Collins a great source inspiration for Rose.

I’ve seen Rose perform much of this material live on a number of occasions and can confirm that it is highly effective and often very beautiful. The album features many of the musicians who have supported her at these events including pianists Martin Riley and Ian King, cellist Catherine Harper and guitarist Simon Othen, all locally based and all very fine players. Riley and King are also co-writers with involvement in many of the original compositions. Other contributors include violinists Leighton Hargreaves and Dan Cassidy plus Mendi Singh on tabla and Praful Mystic on flute.

The album commences with the Rose/Riley composed title track featuring strings orchestrated by Riley. A paean to the power of words and music the Welsh language lyric of the chorus, derived from the folk tune “Calon Lan”, represents a salute to Rose’s roots. The strings add depth and lushness to this voice and piano piece but it’s the purity of Rose’s well enunciated vocals that impresses most.

Another Rose/Riley composition, written in conjunction with Daniel Hodgson, “Taigh Alainn” has long been a popular item at Roses’s live shows and has been recorded previously on EP. The title is Scots Gaelic for “Beautiful House” and the lyric celebrates idyllic holidays spent in the Hebrides. It’s a beautiful tune and is obviously a personal favourite of the singer – it’s one of mine too. With its arresting chorus and descriptive, evocative lyrics the song has the potential for considerable popular appeal if heard in the right quarters. The latest arrangement includes violin, keyboards and Roses’s own acoustic guitar.

“Springtime” is an adaptation of an unfinished poem by the late Eva Cassidy with music by Ian King and with Eva’s words tidied up and slightly amended by Rose and Dan Cassidy. Dan, Eva’s brother, adds his haunting violin playing to the arrangement.  Dan Cassidy is a highly accomplished violinist who can play in both folk and jazz styles. Born in the US but now resident in Iceland he is a regular visitor to the UK where he is a popular figure on the live music circuit through his folk duo with vocalist/guitarist James Hickman and his own Swing Quartet which plays jazz in the Django Reinhardt / Stephane Grapelli style. His playing here enhances Rose’s beautiful vocal performance and his sister’s direct and evocative poetic imagery and this is another piece capable of a broad appeal, particularly among Eva Cassidy’s legion of fans.

The Rose/King collaboration “Lady Of Shallott” draws its inspiration not only from Tennyson’s words but also J.W.Waterhouse’s painting, the latter also influencing the album art work. Roses’s typically poised vocal combines effectively with King’s piano and Cassidy’s violin in this latest evocation of Tennyson’s tragic heroine.

Similarly the Rose / King collaboration “Little Boat” seems to draw upon the same source with the distinctive sound of Mystic’s bansuri flute greatly enriching the arrangement.

Rose and Riley then combine on an original song that draws upon the words of Shakespeare’s sonnet “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day” . The sparse voice and piano arrangement emphasises the beauty of Roses’s voice,  a quality frequently referred to by other commentators as “timeless”.  A word too for her main accompanists, both Riley and King play lyrically and with great sensitivity throughout the album, perfectly attuned to Roses’s voice and poetic vision.

A similarly sympathetic Rose / Riley arrangement graces a setting of Dickens’ “A Child’s Hymn” with Rose’s soaring vocal often combining her characteristic purity with an unexpected power.

There’s a Kate Bush like quirkiness about the arrangement of “Tyger Tyger”, an adaptation of the words of William Blake. Rose’s voice is complemented by a full band arrangement including the exotic sounds of flute and tabla.

The wistful “The First Day” adapts the words of Christina Rosetti in a guitar led arrangement by Dave Hamill that also features the beautiful but haunting cello sound of Catherine Harper. It’s my assumption that the guitar is played in this instance by Simon Othen.

I’m particularly partial to Roses’s interpretation of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves”. Her version is inspired by that of Eva Cassidy and is delivered in a folk style that emphasises the true beauty and poetic quality of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. Harper’s cello is again prominent in the arrangement, her sound rich and dark and appropriately Autumnal. Alongside Othen’s guitar it is the perfect accompaniment to Rose’s beautifully controlled and nuanced vocal performance.

The album also includes a “bonus track”, an arrangement of the song “The Rose”, written by Amanda McBroom and made famous by Bette Midler. It’s a song that Rose has performed effectively live in a an intimate small group situation but this version honours both McBroom’s song and Roses’s heritage by supplementing her voice with the sounds of the Aber Valley Male Voice Choir. It’s a stirring rendition of McBroom’s paean to the power of love but avoids teetering into excess. Like all of Roses’s work it exudes poetic sensibility and good taste.

“Song Be My Soul” is emphatically not a jazz album but it still represents an impressive body of work with typically immaculate singing from Rose and sympathetic support from a diverse and well chosen cast. Some listeners may find it a little twee but there’s no doubting the purity of Roses’s voice and for my money she’s a real talent with the ability to deliver consistently in a live situation.

“Song Be My Soul” is a concept album of sorts and its poetic and literary links may discourage some listeners. I’d like to see Rose record an album of favourite songs with no overall theme other than quality. She’s an adept selector of outside material right across the folk, jazz and pop sectors and an excellent interpreter of other people’s songs. In the meantime she continues to work consistently in a variety of musical contexts while remaining a talent deserving of far wider national recognition.

Reviewed by: Ian Mann