Becki Biggins Quartet, “It’s A Man’s World”, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 19/05/2019.
Becki Biggins – vocals, John-Paul Gard – organ, Ben Waghorn – tenor & baritone saxophones, flute, Andy Tween - drums
Originally from Shrewsbury, Becki Biggins began singing with a local youth big band before studying tenor saxophone at Leeds College of Music. She later returned to singing, collaborating on a series of ‘smooth jazz’ recordings with musician, DJ and producer Paul Hardcastle.
Biggins has also released a more orthodox jazz album “The + VE” which features pianist and arranger Laurie Holloway and his trio with Dave Olney on bass and Harold Fisher at the drums. She has also worked regularly with pianist and musical educator Malcolm Edmonstone.
Now based in Chepstow and the mother of two young children Biggins has been ‘off the scene’ for a while but is now making a return to the musical front line. In 2018 she appeared at the annual Wall2Wall Festival Dinner at Abergavenny’s Angel Hotel performing with a trio led by pianist Guy Shotton and featuring bassist Nick Kacal and drummer Alex Goodyear. The standards based set from this one off quartet was so well received by the audience that it quickly became a cast iron certainty that Biggins would be invited back to play at one of BMJ’s regular club nights with her own band.
The “It’s A Man’s World” project has its roots in a series of duo performances that Biggins played at various Bristol restaurants in the company of organist John Paul Gard. It was Gard who suggested putting a full, permanent band together, first recruiting saxophonist Ben Waghorn and later drummer Andy Tween, both leading figures on the Bristol music scene.
Biggins first conceived the idea of the “It’s A Man’s World” show some ten years ago but only now, with the formation of the quartet, has she been able to put it into practice. The basic concept is that Biggins will sing songs historically sung by men, written by men, or written about men but sing them from the perspective of a modern, feminist woman, reclaiming them if you will. Even Biggins’ stage attire was in accordance with the theme, white shirt, black trousers and braces, all very mannish, but with a very girly pair of shoes. There was no way anybody was really going to mistake her for a bloke!
Even the band were in on the act, Gard sporting a “Jimmy Smith tie” and a very striking pair of patterned ‘ winkle picker’ style shoes.
Tonight’s appearance followed a hugely successful performance of the same show at the famous Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London, an event reviewed very favourably by Poppy Koronka writing for London Jazz News.
Biggins is clearly an artist who has accrued something of a following. Tonight the audience was the largest for a BMJ event for many years and the Melville Theatre was virtually sold out. Only Gilad Atzmon has come close to approximating these numbers in recent years.
In truth the concept behind the “It’s A Man’s World” show isn’t quite as profound as it might first appear. In many ways it’s just an excuse for Biggins and her band to perform some of their favourite songs, albeit songs from across a broad range of the musical spectrum. This wasn’t a run of the mill jazz standards gig.
In keeping with the theme of the evening Biggins kicked off with a song indelibly associated with Frank Sinatra, an aplha male vocalist if ever there was one. “I Got You Under My Skin” found Biggins putting a seductive, feminine slant on the song, her vocals accompanied by the sounds of brushed drums, smoky tenor sax and Gard’s two manual Viscount organ. In this bass-less quartet the bass lines are played by Gard’s feet by means of a pedal board. Indeed the sight of Gard’s dancing toes has become something of a feature of his performances and helped to inspire the name of his former band, Pedalmania.
Biggins was also quick to acknowledge the influence of iconic female writers and performers with her version of “The Very Thought Of You” being inspired by the late, great Ella Fitzgerald. Here Biggins included a verse of scat singing in tribute to Ella while instrumental solos came from Waghorn on tenor and Gard on organ.
Next up was another Sinatra associated song, “The Lady Is A Tramp”, which was introduced by the duo of voice and organ, serving as reminder of the origins of this project. Sung in the first person by Biggins this arrangement also included some rarely heard additional verses plus an instrumental solo from Waghorn on tenor.
Biggins paid homage to Peggy Lee with a version of the song “Black Coffee”. “Enjoy the melancholy” said Biggins by way of introduction, taking a long drink of red wine before delivering a bluesy vocal that helped to give the music a real after hours feel, a quality enhanced by the rollong drone of the Viscount and Waghorn’s smoky tenor soloing.
The noirish mood was continued into “The Meaning Of The Blues”, another piece introduced by an organ and vocal duet and with the performance overall imbued with a very effective moody, brooding quality.
By way of contrast a playful “Teach Me Tonight”, as inspired by the version by Nancy Wilson, included some bravura vocalising from Biggins as she captured the succinct sexiness of the lyrics.
Moving away from the jazz and blues repertoire the quartet offered their version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” with Waghorn moving between flute and tenor sax as Biggins and the band put their own blues and Latin stamp on the song with instrumental features for Tween, Gard and Waghorn, the latter now back on tenor.
The first set closed with the Biggins original “I’m Giving Up On You” a song sourced from the composer’s “D.I.Y. EP”. This is a a home recording on which Biggins sings and plays everything herself. The instrumentation includes saxes and other woodwinds, keyboards and various household implements. Biggins studied saxophone at music college before deciding to concentrate on singing. She names the late Michael Brecker as her all time saxophone hero and Biggins herself sometimes still plays some tenor on gigs, the Festival Dinner being one such example. With Waghorn on board she doesn’t play it in this band but there’s no doubting the fact that Biggins is a considerable all round musical talent.
As for the song itself it was inspired by the lazy ex-husband of one of Biggins’ friends and is a witty piece of songwriting with something of the feel of a jazz standard about it. Tonight Waghorn’s tenor solo matched the forcefulness of Biggins’ amusing but caustic lyrics.
Set two commenced with the trio playing a jazzy, funky arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” with Biggins making a diva’s entrance to sing the lyrics, followed by instrumental solos from Gard on organ and Waghorn on tenor.
Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” has been an increasingly popular vehicle for jazz performers in recent years, their interest perhaps piqued by the death of Glen Campbell. Here Waghorn featured on flute, soloing on the instrument alongside Gard on organ.
Biggins expressed her admiration for the songwriting of Billy Joel, choosing to cover the little known ballad “Through the Long Night”, the title track of Joel’s “Glass Houses” album. Her vocals, allied to the instrumental arrangement, helped to generate an authentic late night feel that matched the mood of the song perfectly. Here, as elsewhere during the course of the evening, I was impressed by the interplay between Biggins’ voice and Waghorn’s tenor, the saxophonist variously skilfully shadowing or echoing the singer’s vocal melody lines.
Biggins spoke warmly of her time working with pianist and arranger Laurie Holloway and dedicated “Close Your Eyes” to the memory of Holloway’s late wife, the singer Marion Montgomery. Biggins brought something of Montgomery’s warmth and playfulness to a performance propelled by Gard’s organ pedal bass lines that also included a scat vocal episode from the leader plus instrumental solos from Waghorn on flute and Gard on organ. Finally we enjoyed a neatly constructed drum solo from the excellent Tween which was along way removed from the booming beats and powerful rhythms that he one supplied to folk/rock superstar Seth Lakeman.
The singer returned to her “D.I.Y. EP” for another pithy and witty original. “You Should Be Married By Now” is pure autobiography, written from the perspective of a thirty year old mother of two in a stable relationship who is still harassed by friends and family who trot out ‘that phrase’ with dreary regularity. An appropriately playful arrangement featured Waghorn moving between baritone and tenor saxes.
A Nat King Cole inspired cruise down “Route 66” saw Biggins successfully navigating the lyrics while suitably hard driving solos came from Waghorn on tenor, Gard on organ and Tween at the kit, with a second drum feature.
Voice and organ ushered in a slowed down gospel arrangement of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”, which to these ears was a considerable improvement on the Vegas style original with r’n’b style tenor and church style organ taking the instrumental honours.
The inevitable encore was a raunchy, bluesy romp through Peggy Lee’s “I’m a W.O.M.A.N” with Biggin’s fiercely defiant declaiming of the lyric fuelled by Tween’s sturdy, solid backbeat while Gard and Waghorn took the opportunity to cut loose on organ and tenor for the last time.
The audience reaction was the most animated and enthusiastic that I’ve seen at BMJ. Obviously the familiarity of much of the material helped but so did the quality of the performances. Gard, Waghorn and Tween are all supremely accomplished musicians who had previously endeared themselves to BMJ audiences. They all played superbly throughout and delivered fluent and exciting solos. It’s rare to see a singer backed by an organ trio, as opposed to the more conventional piano trio, and this helped to make the Biggins band particularly distinctive with the blend of jazz, blues and gospel elements enabling the band to stand out from the pack.
But most of all the audience loved Biggins, who presented the show with wit, charm and warmth. As well as being a highly accomplished vocalist she’s also a vibrant and bubbly personality with a very natural ‘everywoman’ or ‘girl next door appeal’. The performance wasn’t perfect by any means, but the occasional false start or mis-remembered lyric was soon forgotten, thanks to the sheer force of Biggins’ personality. Her enthusiasm is infectious, she’s a musician who is also a huge music fan with a love for, and affinity with, a broad range of music across a variety of genres.
The “It’s A Man’s World Show” is one with the potential to appeal to a wide audience while retaining enough genuine jazz and blues elements to keep the purists happy. Biggins and the band have another sold out Pizza Express show scheduled at the end of June when they will appear at the Holborn venue. For full details of Becki Biggins’ touring schedule please visit http://www.beckibiggins.com
Finally my thanks to Becki for talking with me at various junctures during the course of the evening. During the course of our conversations we discovered a mutual love for the music of Steely Dan. Maybe Becki will include a version of her favourite Dan song, “Pearl Of The Quarter” in the set the next time I see her.