Music review: Jemma Cher, Jazzlab

A young jazz musician performs a solid set of eclectic songs.

When the Bennett’s Lane jazz club announced its closure in 2015 many jazz fans mourned the end of a Melbourne institution. But shortly after, the club owner Michael Tortoni opened a new business in Brunswick’s Jazzlab, which has been catering to enthusiasts with a wide range of local jazz talent since 2017. 

Recent performer, Jemma Cher has the skill but not the pathos of a young Amy Winehouse. Those of us who still love and miss Winehouse may rightly feel that pathos was the most poetic, but also the most tragic of her qualities, and less important than her love of the form, her inventive ear for jazz composition and her charisma. 

Cher has all these qualities, and performed a stunning set with Simon Starr on double bass, Ben Grayson on keys, Hugh Harvey on drums and Joshua Moshe on woodwind. Together, this talented group of up-and-comers performed a range of favourites ranging from the haunting work of Eva Cassidy to the moving classics of Dusty Springfield, from traditional folk songs to well-loved standards.

What made this set special were the arrangements. The song choices seemed designed to showcase each musician’s range, whether it was Moshe’s improvisational prowess in the Dolly Parton anthem, ‘Jolene’ or the way Grayson’s keys offerered a fresh take on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’.

A personal favourite was a transition from ‘Cry Me a River’ – the Arthur Hamilton song made popular by artists such as Julie London and Justin Timberlake – to ‘Glory Box’ by 90s pop sensation Portishead.

The arrangements also shone when they were at their most unexpected. From a crowd-pleaser like ‘A Man’s World’, which delivered the political sensibility we often associate with jazz, to a new lens on old folksongs, the choices were reflective of a group of musicians with a deep feeling for the repertoire, and willing to lend it something of their own.

A night at Melbourne’s Jazzlab is a veritable glory box of treasures for anyone who hankers after an international musical sensibility with a homegrown twist. 

Jemma Cher performed at Jazz Lab in Melbourne on 15 April 2023.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin