Natalie Williams looks forward to singing with Ronnie Scott’s Allstars over the weekend
Natalie Williams has sung with Goldie and Incognito, but she will be representing London’s famous jazz club in Cork, writes
NATALIE Williams came home from school at the age of 14 and told her father that she was going to be a jazz singer. “He was over the moon,” the singer-songwriter recalls.
A lot of parents might not be so thrilled at the thought of their child choosing life as a musician, a path that’s notoriously tough and strewn with casualties, but Williams’ father, the English poet John Hartley Williams, was an avid jazz fan.
The prompt for Williams’ pronouncement to her father was a jazz workshop with singer Marisa Turner that had been held at school that day. “I remember she just said, now we’re going to do this thing called improvising,” Williams says. “Everyone was going, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ For some reason, I took to it quite easily; I just went, ‘oh yeah, I think I can do this.’ I think it was all the jazz we listened to at home.”
Williams has had a life in music pretty much ever since, although it hasn’t all been jazz. For the past decade, her monthly Soul Family Sundays residency at famed London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s has sold out. She has toured with acid-jazz band Incognito, and her first two solo albums were firmly within the R&B/Soul tradition, earning her a MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) Award nomination.
“Most people decide on one thing and stick to that, but I’m not very good at that,” she says. “I grew up listening to a lot of straight jazz, people like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. But I’ve never wanted to be limited by genre.”
Williams has released four solo albums, and is a frequent collaborator with other musicians across a range of genres; she has recorded with UK DJs Nu:Tone, and Goldie.
“I love him, and he’s always been so lovely and complimentary to me, but I’m not going to lie, he’s a nutcase in the studio,” she says of recording with Goldie. “He’ll scream through the vocal booth window and pull faces and conduct and bounce around, and you have to interpret what he means. Once he was just shouting, ‘Own it! Own it!’ and I was going, ‘I’m trying.’
“I came in the next day and there was a pile of satsumas in the studio with little faces drawn on and speech bubbles with ‘own it’ coming out of their mouths.”
One thing that Williams certainly owns is her Soul Family Sundays residency at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho, where she performs with a ten-piece soul band and a staggering array of guest performers.
The fabled jazz club has a special place in Williams’ heart. Moving to England from her parents’ home in Berlin at 19, Williams studied at the Guild Hall School of Music and Drama:
“Ronnie’s used to give musicians a discounted ticket, which was great as a poor student. I used to go down and listen to all my heroes play.”
Years later, bassist Sam Burgess, a fellow Guild Hall graduate, would put Williams’ name forward to audition at Ronnie Scott’s. A decade in, Williams says that playing the legendary club, she’s constantly aware that she’s walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest singers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
“You never forget it,” she says. “The club is full of these amazing photographs of people who’ve played there, and there’s something in the air there: people feel it when they come in. I’ve had incredible nights. One gig, Quincy Jones rocked up while we were playing.”
Williams has appeared once before at the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, but is delighted to return with the Ronnie Scott Allstars, with whom she lends her rich and versatile voice to a set she says is “for proper, old-school jazz lovers.”
“We’re also going to run some jam sessions while we’re in Cork,” she says. “Anything can happen with that, so it’s really fun. We’ve toured a lot together, and the musicians are all incredibly versatile, so they can adapt to whoever they’re playing with. It’s a really lovely group of musicians. Lucky, lucky me!”
Ronnie Scott’s Allstars appear in a Double Bill with Scott Hamilton & The Champian Fulton Trio at The Everyman at 2.30pm on Sunday, October 29