Fiona Ross – Black, White and a Little Bit of Grey (2017)

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Fiona Ross has long been establishing her own style. I saw her perform live at the London Jazz Platform in June of this year. On stage, she is lively and engaging, with her vocals flowing like calming waters across the maelstrom of life’s happenings, and her stories passionate and full of emotion. Her previous album Just Me (and Sometimes Someone Else) received positive reviews. Equipped with excellent musicians, Fiona has now created a unique and exciting follow up which builds on her previous material and demonstrates the maturation of talent this musical hand grenade has let loose.

Black, White and a Little Bit of Grey opens with “Black and White,” which is introduced with simple, off-beat guitar chords over which the vocals enter. The waltzing rhythm pervades the entire track but the speed and arrangement changes, creating several distinct compartments to the song. Fiona Ross’ vocals soar, spot on with the notes.

“Busy … Always Busy” has a very sweet opening with a gorgeous, open-fingered bass line from Derek Daley. From there, the song develops with swingy, lively beats delivered with a rapacious glee, then showcases a pretty nifty solo from the sax of Kris Buzow. The lyrics deliver the age-old story of the impossibility of a relationship amidst the business of life. There is a nod to nostalgia with the arrangement, and the bass line toward the end takes on a life of its own, recorded so every finger change is heard and felt.

“Touch Me, You Make Me Feel So” is poppy, gentle and incorporates fast-delivered lyrics and musical entrees. It’s all enhanced and expanded with the addition of backing vocals from Fiona and some intriguing conga rhythms from Simon Todd in the background, which interact with the percussion of Marley Drummond to create a backdrop of open sounds. Against this backdrop comes a sax solo over which the vocals lift and soar, sometimes nearing stratospheric heights. The lady definitely has a huge range.

“This Chemistry” has a swung beat and tells the story of chemistry and desire between two people which can never mix. A sax-led middle section takes the piece in a different direction and gradually the rhythm slows and the arrangement is more open before the vocals return over the top and the entire band join. Bass and sax finish the song, leaving a distinctly pleasant memory in the ears, even given the sad lyrics.

“The Poor Wife” opens with a jazzy, swaying rhythm and the lyrics tell of a cheating husband and the dilemma of someone who knows: Whether to tell or not? The lyrics here are clear, and Fiona Ross sings them with vitality and effervescence of simmering emotion. Just over half way there is a lovely change of rhythm and the track becomes rocky with a guitar solo from Gibbi Bettini under which the off-set rhythms of the conga and drums make for a very interesting canvas. The continual bass line then finally emerges on its own to close the track.

“The Sex” is raunchy and speaks to the listener about the discovery of carnal desire, and the effect of almost-perfect chemistry. The lyrics tell us, “I know just what you need; just trust me. … Look what you do to me’ look what I could do to you.” Get the picture? A sax solo sums up the relaxed, slightly sleazy, slippy, slide-y intonation pervading this track. And the solid rhythm in the background? Well, that speaks for itself, really.

“Mistress” is one of two tracks recorded in a stairwell, and has a resonance and echo which gives the track power and an openness. Gentle, lilting piano chords and trickles allow plenty of room for the vocals and lyrics. Get your hankies at the ready. This is a powerful track about shame, lack of control and the feelings one mistress expresses, knowing she is in a no-win situation. Lovely, sensual and sung with such emotion you get the sense tears were not far away.

“So Cold” tells a tale of cruelty and lies and in this number. Fiona Ross’ vocals are crystal clear, and the music rolls along until the middle change where the rhythm incorporates counterpoint and off-sets. That makes you prick up your ears, just when you were being lulled into a sense that this was a rather poppy number. Clever and rather lovely with some great guitar work from Gibbi Bettini again.

“The Evidence Suggests” begins with guitar and vocals in a duet full of emotion and the lyrics set the scene for a tale of deception and the intriguing ins and outs of love. On this track, the vocals are centre and Ross shows she can growl with the best of them in a few places – as well as soar off into the heights. “That Moment” starts as a lovely, easy-on-the-ears number expressing the feelings between two people inexorably drawn to each other and the resultant chemistry. Clever lyrics, however, lead the listener deftly down the wrong path and then bring them back to reality with a crash. Great guitar again, and suitably devious back up from the band. Brilliant.

“I Broke the Rules” is the second track recorded in a stairwell, and begins with piano chords redolent of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in their rhythm and intervals. Again, the recording has an echoed effect, which magnifies the vocals and sounds. The slow, grinding chords suit the sadness of the lyrics perfectly. There is sadness and anger here, backed up by entrance and exit of guitar and the flow of the sound created by the band, but there is also a strength. At times, you sense the rage simmering in the background. Ross’ vocals here are possibly the best on the entire album, and delivered with just the right amount of power in each section.

Black, White and a Little Bit of Grey has a style which is entirely Fiona Ross. Carefully and deliberately, she weaves stories, using her vocals for emphasis and to add emotion and power where needed. There is a difference in the tracks, yet a similarity which somehow pervades and binds it all together, like a thread running through. At times, the vocals have immense power; at others they are incredibly, impossibly gentle and speak of soft caresses and forbidden intrigues. They flow gently around the music arrangements like a stream at times and crashing like a torrent at others.

On some tracks, the vocals are laid bare, exposing not only the impressive range but also some of the little wobbles – but this actually adds to the emotive atmosphere of the lyrics. The range is impressive and Fiona Ross uses both chest and upper registers fully. There is the occasional lack of clarity, but this is easily forgiven in the emotion of the songs and the well-honed lyrics. She’s also backed by a great band of musicians, whose presence adds great value to the listening experience here. Considering they were hand-picked from Ross’ large base of musical associates, she made some good calls. This is a great album, with versatility and panache.

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