I have heard Zem Audu play twice now. And he’s winning me over a bit more, set by set. The first time was as an on-stage contestant in the Musicians’ Company’s annual competition, which he won. The second was last night, at the gig which is part of his prize.
These two playing situations are so radically different. If you’re a contestant in any sort of competition, the main reason you turn up is in order to win. The choices which matter aren’t yours to make. At the WCOM competition, someone else has picked the other members of your band. And it is up to the voting audience at the gig to make the most important decision of the evening.
But last night, the winner’s gig, was a very different occasion. The winner gets to make all the important choices. Like whom else to have on stage, what to play, how to behave, what is the right demeanour to adopt in victory. Competitions can be undignified scraps, but, in the wrong hands, victory celebrations can be far uglier.
So I first want to single out for praise Zem Audu’s demeanour as winner. It was assured, it was just right. And considering his age – only 22- astonishingly so. A jacket, a tie and a smile, and that’s just for starters. Though playing complex music throughout, he didn’t let a single sheet of music get between him and the audience. His announcements and patter between numbers were friendly, amusing, and brought the audience in.
But such evenings are really all about the music. Audu presented a programme entirely of originals with a couple of re-worked standards. Audu’s melodic lines tend to stem from the repeating and re-working of shapes. Sonny Rollins – Alfie’s Theme and St Thomas are built around similar processes – seems to be the most obvious elephant in Audu’s room or creature on his back.
But while Rollins was habitually a fiery player, Audu at the moment concentrates mor on plying his craft carefully and thoughtfully. Audu knows himself to be capable of erupting and dominating, and occasionally he did let go- and very convincingly. But most of the time he chooses not to, preferring the interplay of ideas and cross-rhythms with his partners. The longest-standing of these is Saleem Raman on drums. There was a lot of rhythmic energy and many encouraging smiles being passed around the stand. And many of both seemed to emanate originally from Raman. Karl Rasheed Abel on bass was solid and alert throughout.
Newest collaborator Peter Edwards on piano was initially more diffident and may have been undermiked in the first half. But in numbers such as “Steady Rising” and the rhythmic bounciness of “Gimme Five” in the second set, he really came into his own. Indeed Edwards looked gobsmacked at the warmth of the applause which he received after a thoughtful solo in the slow middle section of Audu’s “Cherokee”. His face suddenly broke out into a smile. Nice.
The Musicians Company are doing good things. Petronella Dittmer, the first Lady Master of the company in 500 years gave a very encouraging presentation speech. The next WCOM gig with the sheer quality and humanity and big musicianship of Andy Panayi on tenor or baritone or both, and master trombonist Mark Nightingale is this Wednesday 25th . Green Man Great Portland Street. Get there early….
And in Zem Audu they have picked a man who knows how to win well..
* The Winner Takes it All (Abba) Check out an amazing site from a High School in Santa Monica, CA, of songs translated into latin