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Julia Biel

NCEM, York
Saturday 17th December 2016

As each of York's twinkling streets and snickelways bustled with festive celebration this evening, one of this country's most exciting young voices was concerned with entangling itself amongst the medieval rafters of St Margaret's Church, better known as the National Centre for Early Music. Julia Biel's hypnotic vocals have earned her much praise over the last decade, with The Independent calling her "the best British vocalist to emerge in an age", and her charming delivery of mainly self-penned songs provided, perhaps, one of this evening's most warmly enchanting events that the tinsel-decked city had to offer.
The singer-songwriter's second album LOVE LETTERS AND OTHER MISSILES was released to great acclaim in 2015, earning her a MOBO Award nomination, and her third release is set to appear in the new year. Tonight, Julia delivered an impassioned performance of songs from her two albums, along with a selection of new compositions, with Ayo Solawu on drums and Biel’s partner Idris Rahman on bass.

Aside from her fine singing, which blends the raw earthiness of Billie Holiday with the sweet and soaring improvisations of Ella Fitzgerald, Biel is an impressive pianist and guitarist who lays her daringly acrobatic vocals on top of some rather exquisite jazz chord structures. But whilst the temptation to label this young singer songwriter as a jazz artist is strong, it cannot be argued that Biel's repertoire and, indeed, the trio's delivery is very much entrenched in soul. Songs such as Who's Gonna Comfort Me Now? and Biel's adventurous take on Nina Simone's Feeling Good provided two examples of this trio's dexterity when it comes to foot-tapping soul whilst Emily, inspired by a rather creative six year old niece, explored the kind of sunny pop sound that has kept the likes of Ben Folds and Ed Harcourt in business for years. Indeed, after hearing the infectious melodies of such devastatingly beautiful songs as You Made Me Write a Love Song and Hymn for the Unknown, one cannot help but wonder why Julia Biel isn't the household name it should be.

During this evening's second set, Julia had the good sense to cover the bewitching Coots/Gillespie song You Go To My Head, made famous by Billie Holiday back in 1938. With a voice clearly inspired by Holiday, Biel's sultry reworking of the classic jazz standard contained a number of curious melody quirks that succeeded in complimenting the already intoxicating nature of the song. Biel's willingness to pepper her self-penned set with established compositions that clearly suit her unique voice is something one hopes she'll continue to do as her prowess and, indeed, reputation as a fine songwriter grows.

Liam Wilkinson
Northern Sky