Reviewed at Pizza Express Jazz Club, London by Michael Darvell for Classical Source.
Grimsby-born Gary Williams is a singer with an easy style. His favourite singers are the likes of Andy Williams, Bobby Darin, Eddie Fisher and Matt Monro, performers who exude an air of relaxation but who can also swing with the best of them. Gary first came to public attention when he appeared with the BBC Big Band at Pebble Mill, in a tribute to Vic Damone (he had a hit with ‘On the street where you live’ which Gary has just recorded on his new album “Swingin’ on Broadway”). After that he was a regular with the BBC Band, since when he has worked with many other bands (Back to Basie, Opus One, Syd Lawrence) and, on occasions, symphony orchestras too. He regularly visits Finland where he sings with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by the irrepressible John Wilson. In fact they will be in Finland later in February, after Gary returns from a week’s work on the QE2. Then it’s over to Ireland and the RTE Orchestra again under Wilson, more cruise work on the Queen Mary 2 and then back to Finland in April for a Fred Astaire tribute. This week (4-9 February), however, he’s at the Pizza Express in Soho to launch the new album. Gary Williams came to prominence through “The Rat Pack” show. He sang the songs of Frank Sinatra and, although his voice is not unlike Sinatra’s, he never slavishly copies the voice, just the intonation and the laid-back style. And ‘laid-back’ sums up Gary’s approach. He had not played Pizza Express in Dean Street before – yet he instantly knew how to work the room in a completely relaxed but swinging style and is more a live-wire than he is recorded. The new album presents songs from Broadway shows but sung in a gentle manner with superb arrangements – in an intimate style, just good honest interpretations of such numbers as ‘All I need is the girl’ (“Gypsy”), ‘This can’t be love’ (“The Boys from Syracuse”) ‘Who will buy?’ (“Oliver!”), ‘You’re never fully dressed without a smile’ (“Annie”), ‘On a clear day you can see forever’, and, of all (favourite?) things, ‘My favourite things’ from “The Sound of Music”.
If you think the ‘cheese’ factor is fairly high on the recording, you would be wrong, because there is nothing at all sentimental about Gary’s interpretations. Even ‘My favourite things’ sounds like a classic. The arrangement is by Clive Dunstall who also manages to make ‘Chim Chim Cheree’, ‘Who will buy?’ and ‘The surrey with the fringe on top’ sound new-minted. Other fine arrangements are by Andrew Cottee, Phil Lee and, of all people, Richard Rodney Bennett, who also plays celeste.
From the recording, Luke Annesley is a guest artist at Pizza Express, providing some excellent saxophone-playing particularly for ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ from Cole Porter’s “Jubilee”, and also on Porter’s ‘Just one of those things’. But the whole quartet is so very good – musicians who are enjoying themselves. They open the show with the title song from “The Sound of Music’, into which they breathed new life with a swinging arrangement. Gary’s first songs are from “42nd Street” – the first show he saw in London and which had a profound effect on him. Most of his material is from the golden age of the American Songbook – classics such as ‘Steppin’ out with my baby’, ‘I love a piano’, ‘Anything goes’, and ‘Hello young lovers’. When it comes to doing a Sinatra medley, however, Gary is even more spoilt for choice. He sings a line or two from abut twenty numbers that Sinatra made famous: ‘Come fly with me’, ‘I’ll never smile again’, ’One for my baby’, ‘Young at heart’ and even an arrangement of ‘Ol’ man river’ … well, whatever Frank sang was or became famous. However, he hated ‘Strangers in the night’, but it was still one of his greatest successes.
In his second set Gary sings ‘Over the rainbow’ complete with an introductory verse I don’t recall hearing before. Luke Annesley comes to the fore in ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’, and then it’s into ‘Lover come back to me’, ‘Thou swell’ and, finally, ‘Always look on the bright side of life’. All these songs suit Gary’s smooth style. And not only is he a brilliant singer; he also puts the audience at ease. A lot of artists are not good at being themselves when not singing – Gary is as relaxed chatting as he is singing, and he’s funny too. Don’t miss him.