Sarah Jane Morris may be best known to some as a member of The Communards, with whom she toured extensively in 1986 in the wake of their worldwide Number One hit Don’t Leave Me This Way. Her rich, smoky baritone vocals provided a captivating counterpoint to Jimmy Somerville’s falsetto and became an integral part of the band’s sound. Since then, Morris has enjoyed a remarkable thirty-year career, performing in a number of bands and as a solo artist. Audiences have been enthusiastic about Morris’s inclusion of her take on the music of the much-loved, late singer-songwriter John Martyn in her shows in recent years. So it was no surprise when she decided to record a full album of her fresh interpretations of Martyn’s songs, with renowned guitarist and composer Tony Remy on board as co-arranger and co-producer. That album is Sweet Little Mystery, released earlier in 2019 and currently being promoted throughout the UK and Europe in a special show directed by comedian/activist Mark Thomas, which arrived on the Edinburgh Fringe during the first half of August.
In a poignant touch, some previously unreleased live footage of John Martyn from the 1980s was playing on the screen above the stage as the audience filed into the theatre. Sarah Jane Morris was joined on stage by guitarists Tony Remy and Tim Cansfield, who both feature on the Sweet Little Mystery album. Morris’s warm and engaging manner and commanding stage presence were evident from the start. She also demonstrated an awe-inspiring vocal range and immersed herself completely in a varied selection of ten John Martyn songs, respectfully putting her own stamp on them and shining a light on the soul, blues and jazz elements in particular.
The show opened with Morris’s elegant and heartfelt delivery of the slightly whimsical, very early John Martyn song Fairytale Lullaby. In the achingly romantic Couldn’t Love You More, Morris’s initial semi-whispered vocals eventually gave way to some impassioned soul crooning, triggered by a clever change of tempo. An inventive transformation of pace was also evident in Head And Heart, where Morris’s delicate and soulful reading of John Martyn’s beautiful lyrics segued into Tony Remy’s quicksilver guitar licks and a gloriously uplifting gospel/funk finish.
The dreamy, medium-paced soul/funk ballad Call Me featured a quietly commanding, husky vocal from Morris, which recalled Macy Gray in her prime. Particularly inventive re-imaginings came in the form of Over The Hill, delivered as a freewheeling soul/blues romp with fluid guitar breaks from Tim Cansfield, and May You Never, which was a powerhouse blues/funk workout, notable for Morris’s towering, fervent vocal and some fiery guitar interplay. One World featured a trippy vibe and the coolest of jazz grooves, while a subtle reggae rhythm underpinned Morris’s raw, yearning vocals in Sweet Little Mystery.
As an added bonus between songs, Morris introduced a number of short video clips of John Martyn’s friends, family and fellow musicians paying affectionate and often amusing tribute to him. Solemn guitar tones introduced an air of quiet menace to Solid Air, accentuated further by Sarah Jane Morris’s deep and resonant, blues-drenched vocals, which intensified to semi-screams of anguish as the song drew to a close. The show finished on a real high with the storming, gospel/blues fervour of Don’t Want To Know, which included searing guitar breaks, rapturous vocals from Morris and jubilant audience participation in the choruses. Sarah Jane Morris continued singing the choruses euphorically as she left the auditorium via the centre aisle stairs, and those lyrics seemed to provide a suitable mantra for the troubled times we live in: ”I don’t want to know about evil, I only want to know about love”.
This show was produced and performed beautifully, showcasing the emotional and musical range of John Martyn’s timeless songs and the singular vocal talents of Sarah Jane Morris. The great man would surely approve of these bold re-imaginings of some of his best-loved songs.
You can see Sarah Jane Morris: Sweet Little Mystery at Assembly George Square Studios from 6th – 11th August at 18:45. For tickets, please visit www.edfringe.com