June 2006

Lori Cullen
at the Toronto Jazz Festival
June 29, 2006Young Centre For The Performing ArtsToronto
Recognition and Rewards
by Dave Barnes
Lori Cullen and trio appeared in the last of the successful Cabaret series at the Toronto Jazz Festival. The audience was amply rewarded for finding its way to the Distillery setting. This is a great new addition to performance space and we had ideal performers to show it off. Organizers have been pleased with the enthusiastic reaction and plan a repeat for the next Festival, perhaps catering to the larger audiences that this music is drawing.

With several well-regarded CDs and plenty of public appearances to her credit, singer-songwriter Lori Cullen is finally getting the recognition that is her due. Will the earthly rewards that should follow be forthcoming?

David Matheson – piano and vocals also appeared with Lori on her most recent CD, Calling For Rain. Maury Lafoy – acoustic bass and Jorn Anderson - drums, very ably substituted.

Opening with Burt Bacharach's 1969 hit, "This Girl's in Love With You" we are shaken from our 21st century ironies and deconstructions into a much more comfortable and personal world. This is not nostalgia but a reframing of musical ideas into something anchored in the timeless messages of longing, loss and losses foregone.

When Gilbert O'Sullivan first sang "Alone Again Naturally", his catchy twang made this a hit but perhaps the morose lyrics about leaping from a tower for attention didn't fully register with the more innocent audience of the time. Cullen is able to pull off this tune because while nobody doubts her empathy we don't feel she’s in any danger. Resilience and strength suffuse the bleakest passages.

Cullen's vocal style is immediately and irrepressibly friendly and effusive. In the best spirit of singers before her, she has mastered the exorcising of bad-times demons through song. Surviving the emotional roller coaster is never in question. She can call for rain all she likes but we know that a safe landing is coming our way.

Lori Cullen
A quick shift of mood and we are into the dizzying "Crazy Rhythm" with a double-time feel thrown in to give Lori a chance to show off her rapid-fire vocal delivery. Jorn Anderson catches our attention with the most subtle and effective gadgets pulled off his traps table and used to scrape, brush and bruise out percussion effects seldom seen outside a Pops orchestra and then only by a team of percussionists. This tune features the first of several very fine bass solos by Maury Lafoy, thereby cementing his reputation as a consummate artist of the double stop and bass harmonic art.

Paul McCartney has penned a number of tunes intended to evoke the sound of earlier times and "Jenny Wren" with its melancholy message of the girl who lost her gift of song through heartache might leave you to wondering. Wonder only that we are being pulled by the emotional tug that Cullen is exerting on us. "You Fascinate Me So" was Cy Coleman's chance to enumerate the charms of an extended seduction and this is rendered sweetly via a touching vocal duet by Cullen and David Matheson.

Others have commented on Cullen's refreshingly unguarded stage presence and there is much to this. As stage personas go, Cullen is as relaxed and comfortable with band-mates and audience as we could wish. Sometimes, a calculated innocence emerges as she chats up the audience with "I didn't know this place existed… we should do something here… oh, we are…" A running gag in which copies of the song list manage to keep disappearing on her and we do begin to wonder about how much is stagecraft and how much is distraction. The music is polished to perfection. We concede that a performer that places so much care in phrasing, timing and timbre must be allowed to have her innocent faults.

A love of well-crafted tunes is evident and arrangements of classic tunes are always given a composer's touch. But this is still improvised music and solos are especially sensitive to the mood. Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay" featured some Latin shaker and lingering rustles executed by Anderson on rainstick, swinging passages by Matheson and chorded bass passages of great delicacy by Lafoy.

Gordon Lightfoot's "Pussywillows Cat-tails" gained a lilt and softness that brought the lyrics to new life with poetic grace. "Bobbles, Bangles and Beads" followed as its brash and bright counterpoint. The prepared song list may be getting perpetually lost but Cullen's sense of how to shape a program is not.

After some years of paying dues it is not surprising that Cullen would like to see a little reward to go with the recognition. She believes in stating her goals out loud in public where people will call her to account if she slips. Great plan, however as Cullen knows through her song lyrics, life is not always fair. Bassist Lafoy had to remind her "we are musicians" as if the rewards that go with talent and dedication are not of this world.

Lafoy has had a measure of success in a variety of musical forms but seems singly attracted to this music and his expression of it. Keeping time may be a bass player's job but some accomplished players, like Lafoy, know how to give musical colour and shape to a song too.

We had a mere glimpse of Matheson's musical versatility as he switched from piano to guitar and vocals on cue showing fluency with each. Leaving space and with phrasing that bring out the best in a gifted vocalist has caused many fine pianists to be overlooked. When done well, and Matheson is at his most sensitive here, the accompanist is an invisible extension of the voice.

Jorn Anderson's work has a capacity to surprise and delight with texture and touch that uncannily anticipates the fluid expression of the other musicians. An invitation by Cullen to "do something" got Cullen a hug from Anderson — "nobody ever asks" — and he proceeded to create a drum solo that distilled years of experience and featured some unusual percussion artifacts. We had all waited to see where that shiny red wooden apple shaker propped on his bass drum would come into play. Brushes of every colour and description, bits of twigs and floppy plastic sticks were pressed into musical service to create soundscapes of great subtlety.

"Me and My Arrow" has become a bit of a local radio hit for Cullen as it gets repeated airplay on Jazz FM. Not surprisingly, this was selected as the final tune, with bravura solo performances guaranteeing that the audience would demand an encore, which was generously given.

With Matheson, Lafoy and Anderson creating the atmospherically-rich undertones that contributed to an original arrangement, it was possible to have a "Moon River" that sounded completely refreshed and cleansed of its overworked duties. Like much that Lori Cullen touches, she is able to resuscitate fine tunes damaged by overexposure or neglect. For this alone, she deserves to be rewarded.

Over recent days I have rewarded myself with an extended listen to her recent CDs. You may want to catch her in upcoming live performances. After all, we want to be able to say that "we remember her when" before, like others before her, worldly success means she is no longer available to us in such intimate cabaret settings.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Dave Barnes
• • • • • •
The Live Music Report
• •
Dougal Bichan Roger Humbert
dougal@dougalco.com rogerh@thelivemusicreport.com

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