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Natalie Dietz

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Review by Brad Syke, Performance for Jazzgroove May 2012

She's not long out of 'the con'. You might say she's an ex-con, I s'pose. The Sydney Conservatorium of Music, that is. Jazz studies. In fact, she graduated only last year. But, to hear her sing, you wouldn't know it. It's more than that though. She also writes and already has, not just a semblance of her own distinctive style or stamp, but a clear idea of where she's heading with it. She has, no doubt about it, a sense of herself and it manifests in a cohesive set of songs, delivered, largely, with wordless eloquence. Dietz vocalises and harmonises: it's a kind of reverse vocalese, not exactly scat as you might typically associate the term, in which, as against words being written to furnish an instrumental, the voice becomes another instrument, serving to create colours, textures and moods, in similar fashion to, say a piano, bass, drums, or sax. And, in many ways, isn't this the purest form of vocal expression, unimpeded by the definition and, by dint of it, limitations of lyrics? It has roots in the Brazilian and African traditions (just recently I've been writing about Angelique Kidjo, who has, among others, her very own language) and she wears these influences on her sleeve. You might be forgiven for thinking of Astrud Gilberto, not least in terms of the easy, warm, inviting timbre of her voice, or Clarice Assad, in terms of her adeptness in the style.

Speaking of piano, drums and sax, Dietz has quite a lineup behind her.

On piano, Gerard Masters (another Kiwi we've happily adopted and aren't liable to give back without a fight); a sensitive, empathic player if ever there was one. He seemed to instinctively tap into Dietz' songwriting sensibilities. His mastery seems ideally suited to the context and his forays into indie pop haven't dimmed his jazz instincts in the slightest.

On drums, the esteemed James Waples, the youngest gun from a whole family of precociously gifted muss, whose rep well-and-truly precedes him. No less a luminary than Mike Nock is but one who'll wax lyrically about him; he and other local legends, like Bernie McGann, Chris Abrahams, Marcello Maio and Farfinkel Pugowski, are also ever-keen to gig with him. Here, though, I thought his snare was too pervasive and, overall, there was a lack of delicacy, which surprised me. It might, of course, been as much, or more, a case of acoustics or mixing. I did have a sense, too, he was containing, even repressing, himself. Perhaps his sit-ins with Dietz are at an embryonic stage and he's still feeling it out. It's hard to know for sure.

Jonathan Brown, well-known for his work with Matt McMahon & The Cats, was on bass. Since The Cats venture into Latin territory, his is a sympathetic pedigree for Dietz stylings. The disposition of his playing fits hand-in-glove with Masters' piano, particularly.

Speaking of precocity, Carl Morgan's guitar-playing is something to behold. To my ear, he sounds like none except himself. And, believe me, that's something. He's living, very listenable proof that virtuosity can be understated; imploring 'listen to me', rather than screaming 'look at me!'. Perhaps that's why he's made it into the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra and, just a few years out of the ANU School of Music (where he was declared most outstanding graduate), has his own quintet and an album.

Composer, arranger, bandleader and educator, Sean Coffin, guested on tenor (The Chase & Watch Your Back) and he too knows the value of the adage 'less is more', with much of the distinction of his playing lying in the 'negative spaces'; the extended pauses. And he really knows how to build a solo. His tone is edgy and assertive, by turns jagged and mellifluous; his rhythmic sense impeccable, swinging like the coolest cat on the chandelier.

The Mood I'm In makes oblique reference to Monk's Mood, by way of its inquisitive, restless piano intro, but also in homage to Monk's legendary silkiness and the sheer jouissance that was ever-present in his music.(With Billie Holiday as muse, would one reflect anything less?) At the risk of condescension, it's nothing short of extraordinary that one as young as Dietz (then again, with youth, at least in linguistic colloquialism, comes tenderness) shows the perspicacity to holistically intuit Monk's intention.

New Day is gentle, contemplative and sounds like dawn, with elemental chords mapping out the structure of the tune, while drums and bass lend some motion and impetus, guitar cascading over the top, a trickling shower of fresh, cool air. As a whole, the piece fades up and out, like the sun itself. This song actually features lyrics, metaphorical and poetic: 'through dark clouds I can see an endless horizon'. Ah, the optimism and long lens of youth! The tune is fluid and blissful, threatening to convert us all to resigned, paeanistic hippiedom in a single listen. Which is probably no bad thing.

The Chase showcased a tight unity between Brown's bass & Masters' piano, with its riffing intro and smoothly cantering momentum. I've only ever heard it the once, on the night, but its lingering stylistic impression lies somewhere in the realm of Burt Bacharach's South American Getaway.

Lost for Words could hardly be more descriptive of her chosen compositional and vocal direction: a wordless, waltz-time ballad, with an ornamental piano intro.

Watch your Back proved to be something of a confessional, inspired, unfortunately, by a friend who disappointed. Here, Dietz and Coffin fused in a unison melody & harmonies more generally emblematic of her songwriting inclinations.

To close the set, Playing with Fire reiterated and underscored this penchant, albeit this time with voice and guitar, as well as a hefty contribution from Waples, whose finesse was awakened.

Natalie Dietz and this lineup show great promise. While there's plenty of depth and sophistication already in evidence, there's a palpable sense the best is yet to come. She wouldn't be the only performer to exhibit a certain shyness and reticence on stage, between songs, which can be quite disarmingly charming in its own way, but a little more confidence, whether feigned or authentic, is implicated, given that this is a young woman with much to say.

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