Venue 505, December 17
Half English, half Australian and based in New York, Joanna Wallfisch is also something of hybrid musically. The songs she writes have elements of pop, art music, folk and jazz, her lyrics, in Blakeian terms, combine innocence and experience, and the two instruments she plays could barely be more dissimilar: piano and ukulele. Add to all that her fondness for using digital looping to layer her singing and the fact that the three Sydney musicians with whom she was collaborating were all jazz-based improvisers and a very broad sonic palette was at her disposal.
A sense emerged, however, of Wallfisch not quite daring to exploit all these resources as fully as she might. This became plainer when one song stood out above the rest: the gorgeous Jimmy Rowles composition The Peacocks, with lyrics by Norma Winstone. Although sung by Wallfisch with only Steve Barry’s piano accompaniment, suddenly there was more colour and contrast in this duet than in any of the quartet pieces, suggesting she was inclined to be more adventurous when sidestepping her own material.
Interestingly the only other cover was Joni Mitchell’s All I Want (sung a cappella, with looping) and, if you drew a line between Mitchell and Winstone, Wallfisch would be close to bisecting it stylistically, both as singer and lyricist. This is esteemed company to be keeping, and certainly Wallfisch is an accomplished songwriter who shuns contrivance in her melodies and harmonic structures, and her voice is pure, pretty and accurate.
Yet the abiding feeling was of options being compressed rather than opened up. A forlorn song called Any More, for instance, could have been much rawer and starker. It was as if she were reticent to gouge the eyes of her own work. While restraint is admirable, so is knowing when to discard that restraint.
Completing the band were bassist Tom Botting and drummer Jodie Michael, but it was Barry who excelled with his instinct for amplifying a line of lyric with the smallest melodic gesture.