Stella Bass has been the resident lounge singer in Dublin’s Sugar Club for a number of years, as well being a regular performer in Café-en-Seine. Her album Too Darn Hot is a collection of classic jazz and contemporary songs, all of which have been given the Stella Bass treatment. The songs may be familiar to us, but Bass absolutely succeeds in putting her own stamp on them. Aided by pianist Phil Ware (who also arranged most of the songs) and the endlessly talented Hugh Buckley on guitar, these songs have been brought to life in a way you probably have not heard before.
Smooth jazz is a tricky genre. If one is unpractised, it can sound unprofessional. But if one has over-practised, it can sound bland. It is a very difficult thing to strike that balance, while simultaneously being true to one’s character and originality. Luckily for us, Stella Bass has managed to achieve this with ease.
After completing her studies at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Bass earned a science degree in UCD. Strange as it may seem, the methodical approach needed for studying science can be heard in the music. Stella Bass has the distinct air of someone who was a theorist before she was a practitioner. The effect is someone who demonstrably knows what she’s doing.
The titular track ‘Too Darn Hot’ is a pleasant, sultry version of the Cole Porter classic, although significantly faster than the original. Phil Ware really shines here with crisp, clashing chords, and is a perfect accompaniment to Buckley’s almost raconteur-esque style of guitar playing. However, the sped up tempo makes the song lose some of its groove.
The highlight of the album is ‘Aeroplane’. It boasts the most sophisticated instrumentation and the most challenging vocal gymnastics for Bass. This Robert Palmer cover showcases exactly what Bass is capable of. In fact, at first listen, it almost sounds like Dave Brubeck backing up Ella Fitzgerald. ‘Back to Black’ by Amy Winehouse is heard here in the most eerie and ethereal version you’ll ever find, while ‘Why Don’t You Do Right’ surprises by being quite a driving and robust take on an old favourite. As a fun fact, the songwriter (Joseph ‘Kansas Joe’ McCoy) originally titled the song ‘Weed Smoker’s Dream’.
What can sometimes happen when you hear a new version of a familiar song, is that you compare line for line the old and new renditions. This does not happen with Stella Bass. Each song is so masterfully performed, that you almost think they were originals. Even in ‘Estate’ which she performs in flawless Italian, you assume, for the duration of that song, that she is an Italian singer. The final track ‘Black Coffee’ features a wonderful solo by saxophonist Michael Buckley and leaves you with enough intrigue to make you want to start the album again.
Stella Bass is a highly polished jazz singer, but with a bit more bite than your typical lounge crooner. She has a powerful command of her diamond cut-glass voice, but for my taste, she could certainly use a bit more grit and substance – she certainly has the talent for it. There is a suspicion that she may be leaning too heavily on her training, and she doesn’t need to. All in all, this album is definitely worth listening to, but as with all jazz, it’s better to hear it live. ‘Too Darn Hot’ is absolutely worth the buy.
Listen to a preview of the album below: