Ian & Sarah Jane Morris, Pizza Express Dean Street
John Fordham, 21st January 2009
On the occasions in a Sarah Jane Morris performance when she seems to turn herself into a cross between Edith Piaf and Tom Waits (and there are usually a few such spinetingling flashes in the course of a show), the British singer's obscurity in her own homeland is hard to fathom. Continental Europe, which has welcomed her for 25 years, seems to take a wider view of this unique artist.
Morris was fellow singer Ian Shaw's guest on this easygoing but emotionally rousing show, with trumpeter Guy Barker joining for the closing stages. Shaw and his piano opened the proceedings, with a staccato and boppy Big Yellow Taxi, a delectably fragile account of the Shirley Horn vehicle Here's to Life, and an audience-participation game (Shaw is a natural-born entertainer as well as a classy improvising vocalist) set to Lou Reed's Walk On the Wild Side.
Morris arrived to open up with a stunning version of Nick Cave's Into My Arms, loading all the spaces between the sounds with implication, and bringing the audience to startled silence. She followed it up with a new original, You Know Her (an autobiographical piece over a hypnotic rocking piano vamp). Morris and Shaw took turns on Miss Otis Regrets and Me and Mrs Jones, and then interwove the two with an ease that belied the absence of rehearsals.
Barker began tracing a voicelike third line of muted effects, half-valve sounds, Louis Armstrong-like ascents and boppish garrulity around Janis Ian's Seventeen, Boo Hewerdine's Sunset (written for Morris) and the Isley Brothers' Harvest for the World, dedicated to Barack Obama. The encore turned Try a Little Tenderness into an ecstatic gospel rocker. It was spontaneous musicianship at its best.