Whoever designed Cabot Hall, part of the east-London Canary Wharf complex, was not too concerned about what people might sound like inside it. Either that or they were trying to extend the tradition established by such places as the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall of defeating most performers' efforts to make themselves heard.
Gwyneth Herbert, the British jazz singer making waves on both sides of the Atlantic, brought along not only her quintet but a string quartet as well for this month's Cabot Hall recital in an attempt to get her musical point across. Top-class musicians all, and playing to a full house of office types ready to party, they still found it impossible to surmount the hall's Valhalla-like acoustics.
With anything below the mid-range of the string bass sounding like the boom of timpani, the drums sounding like a series of echoes slapping around the room and the string quartet playing from time to time but with little sound out front to show for it, the whole thing came across as something of an underwater show.
After a first set in which Herbert, a gifted singer and a true audience communicator unafraid of striking up a spontaneous dialogue with the patrons, had often been hard to pick out in the mix, someone on a table adjoining mine said to his partner "I can't hear a thing; can you?" The partner agreed she couldn't hear the vocals. "I might move down the front for the next set", he concluded gloomily.
He stayed put, but things didn't improve sound-wise for anyone, in a show that demonstrated Herbert's eclectic tastes - from Tom Waits, Portishead and Neil Young songs to originals and a few American classics, such as Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me" and Gershwin's "But Not for Me". Not surprisingly, the quieter arrangements fared best, allowing Herbert's voice to assert itself properly. "But Not for Me" was mostly a voice-bass duet, and delicious in its warmth and intimacy, while "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" featured Herbert with the guitarist John Parricelli. It was a shade too fast, betraying its placing late in the second set, but at least we could hear what she was doing loud and clear.
The audience were appreciative of Herbert's and the band's efforts to overcome the hall's acoustics, calling them back for an encore after a reworking of Peggy Lee's arrangement for "Fever". Janis Ian's "At Seventeen" sent them home happy, the little crowd of fans around the Gwyneth Herbert CD table by the exit a sure sign that something worthwhile had been salvaged from the evening.Reuse content