Jess Abrams is on one mission with this musical piece: to take her audience from the festivities of the Scottish capital to the romance and rhythm of the city that never sleeps. As she works her way through a selection of songs ranging from Lou Reed to numbers from West Side Story, she shares this journey with those in the room. Between her songs, she share little asides about the history of the city and the songs she has chosen, and her passion for the culture of New York today and in the past is undeniable.
Abrams admits that she both loves and hates New York, but this show focuses very much on the love aspect. While you may not quite feel like you are walking down the sidewalk on Broadway or hailing a cab in Times Square, Abrams nonetheless induces a dream-like state, which whisks you away into a metropolitan fairy-tale. The audience feel like they want to sleep. Not because it is dull – it is not – but because it is almost like a lullaby.
This is largely to do with the band. Some jazz music can feel like the musicians are trying to get away from each other, competing within the limits of their time signatures to be the stand-out player. Not here. Every note hit by the pianist correlates with what the bass player is doing, which matches with what the cellist is doing, and so on. Glasgow-based drummer Doug Hough deserves special recognition for a pretty incredible solo towards the end of the show. This is not the type of jazz music which gets the heart racing and the toes tapping. It is more than enough to lounge in a comfy chair and take it all in.
Above all else however, Abrams’ voice is the most effective way that the feeling of being in the USA’s biggest city becomes tantalisingly real, while sat in a small jazz venue in the middle of Edinburgh. Not only her choice of music, but the audible passion in her singing. The softness of her vocals, with intermittent moments of powerful emotion, is a joy to listen to. It is a romantic gesture towards a city that many of her family still call home. Without any doubt, then, a love story.
A Love Letter to New York is also a lovely piece of escapism in what is a manic month for the city of Edinburgh. Politics is (largely) avoided. Everything in the outside world feels like it simply doesn’t matter. Abrams’ incredible talent for storytelling and evoking a sense of place lifts the audience out of the reality in which they currently live, and into a dream. A dream which spans approximately fifty years’ worth of music from the 1920s to the 1970s. What a joyous, if somewhat fleeting, moment this is amidst the chaos of festival season.
The range of material is impressive. There are some musical numbers which might be expected, but other artists who are maybe not quite so obvious, demonstrating a great knowledge of 20th century music. All of these songs tell their own stories that deliver yet another perspective on one of the world’s most incredible cities, and Abrams achieves a lot in breathing life into these stories and making them so believable.
A Love Letter to New York
The Jazz Bar (Venue 57)
14th and 28th August only.
Photo credit: Jess Abrams