Shows I’ll Never Forget: Kitty La Roar and Nick Shankland, July 7, 2014

At Scarfe’s Bar, London: Kitty La Roar is a jazz chanteuse with a penchant for adding her own tweaks and nuances to music. She hails originally from Bolton where, with her twin sister, she sang, performed in small productions and later went her own way — coming to London to study at Goldsmith’s College. She grew up with music, as her older sister played cello and piano.

Kitty performed in cabaret, before branching out on her own as a singer. She is elegant and talkative and she has with her a long time accomplice, Nick Shankland. Nick grew up in Cardiff, Wales, and is classically trained. He has played with many musicians but decided early on he liked jazz. When he first met Kitty, he was tinkling on a piano in a club and Kitty was with a group of friends. She joined him and he invited her to sing.

He was “blown away,” as she put it, and a partnership began. Together, the two have been working to forge new pathways in performance, first as Lucky Victims and then with Kitty as the main attraction and Nick her constant companion and support.

They are working on an album and recording numbers — both standards and songs written by Nick — in Cowshed Studios, London. They use various guest musicians on sax, bass and drums, although often Nick will intersperse bass lines using a beat box and Kitty uses various instruments. Kitty discovered her instrumental side when she was handed a ukulele by Nick at some point and found she could play it almost from the start. She has also learned to play drums and accompanies numbers with snare and other percussion.

The pair invited me to their gig at Scarfe’s Bar in the Rosewood Hotel and of course, I accepted, although I had no idea what to expect.

Scarfe’s Bar is a wondrous place. Unassuming from the street and sitting under the hotel itself, the only giveaway to the fact it might be a venue being two enormous rounded lights glowing on the street side. However, entering the bar, the atmosphere is palpable and the place was buzzing with people having evening drinks and chatting. The bar staff are friendly, attentive and I was greeted with a large beer by Kitty and Nick, offered a choice of places to sit to listen to the music and introduced to the sax player who was one Ed (Edgar) Jones – erstwhile Incognito member and recently playing with the Blockheads when they went to Norway. Ed recounted several stories of the experience, and then the band set up to play.

If I was concerned the music might be bar standards and background, I could not have been more wrong. Numbers like Kosma/Prevert’s “Autumn Leaves” and Ellington’s “Black and Tan” are treated with respect but given a distinctive twist by Kitty and Nick, so they take ownership of the music and sound. Nick’s playing compliments Kitty’s vocals well and at times he develops solos which get everyone listening.

Angry, then quiet, using the full range of the keyboard, he gives the bar piano a work-out it probably hasn’t had for a while. In a tribute to Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, the band played “Sunny Side of The Street,” with all kinds of tweaks and detours. Simply wonderful music.

Reaction to the band was good. Many people were deep in conversation, as you would expect in a hotel bar but every so often — especially on Kitty’s sustained notes where her voice develops an incredible timbre — they stopped and listened attentively. I was asked about them and also told by one staff member that they were the best band the hotel had booked. When people engaged with the music, they clapped and listened with considerable admiration.

The music Kitty and Nick play is varied and they put their own quirky, cheeky style into every number. Ed Jones on sax plays intuitively, and what made it work so well was the fact that each member was listening to the others so each got their slot in the sun but also supported the others well. While Kitty is the star — and this is intentional — both Nick and Ed had their own moments. It is like watching a conversation develop, and they don’t always stick to the script. So the listener enjoys occasional diversions, especially from piano, into what is almost a free playing style.

Kitty and Nick, as well as being good musicians, are also very pleasant company and they made sure that their friends — and a few had made the journey to hear them — were looked after and involved in conversations.

The pair intend to develop their music more, particularly what Nick called Kitty’s vocalese, which is where she takes a song and uses a section to add her own vocalisation and words — whatever comes into her head, kind of a free style vocalisation. It is interesting and unique.

Kitty La Roar and Nick Shankland are on their way and together, the pair are finding willing conspirators to take certain sections of the music world by storm. This is just the start I feel and I am willing to bet we shall hear a lot more from them in the future.

Sammy Stein

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