Soloists, London Jazz Festival Orchestra directed by Guy Barker
(Barbican Hall, November 13th 2009)
The London Jazz Festival got off to a spectacular, even epic start with Jazzvoice in front of a sold-out Barbican Hall last night.
Conductor Guy Barker ‘s infectious energy and clear beat steered a forty-piece orchestra and a galaxy of soloists through a succession of well-chosen and contrasting numbers celebrating the art of song. Barker had also devised, arranged and composed almost all of the music, Herculaean stuff. The audience was amiably, helpfully steered through nearly three hours of music by compere Denis Lawson.
But such an evening -and all the work which goes into it – demands, deserves, and definitely got its moment of magic. At the front of the stage was the 81-year old Sheila Jordan, hair in a shiny bob, sporting an oriental, mostly black silk trouser suit, and shifting her weight from foot to foot, as she swayed with the beat. That beat, that stentorian time was coming a high-up platform way behind her. Bassist Phil Donkin, also massively enlarged on a big screen, was digging with flat fingers, way deep down into the E string of the bass. Baltimore Oriole. Jordan was letting the vocal line jump up like a cat, unpredictably, joyously, percussively into the headvoice on random syllables, like the “ti” of Baltimore. The Barbican crowd cheered to the echo. Sheila Jordan, as she walked off the stage, responded to the warmth of the audience by touching her toes, gym rat style. Triumphant, defiant, and not bad at all for 81.
Other high points: Guy Barker’s full orchestra and band apotheosis of 1959. This complex instrumental score started with So What from Miles Davis Kind of Blue, and finished with Better Git It In Your Soul from Mingus Ah Um, by way of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Dave Brubeck. Ralph Salmins brought crisp perfection on ride cymbal to Take Five. I also enjoyed Ayanna Witter Johnson ‘s low-down funky arrangement of Sarah-Jane Morris’ s Good Night and God Bless
Elling and Ellington. Kurt Elling took a moment to warm up the voice in I Like the Sunrise, but if the wait was short, the pleasure was long.
Sarah-Jane Morris brings a different kind of sassy to these occasions. Guy Barker had cooked up a witches’ brew of an intro for her angry song about divorce, based on an imaginary collaboration between Bernard Hermann and Ligeti. The discomforting closing words of Morris’s song seemed to punch the audience right in the solar plexus: “So long, sucker. Bye bye.”
Natalie Williams is a singer who grows in stature and presence all the time, and rose easily to the big occasion, particularly in Son of a Preacher Man . Brazilian Cibelle ‘s God Bless the Child brought out a simple and poetic piano solo from Dave Newton. Krystle Warren cajoled and anticipated the beat infectiously in her song Circles , in a clever arrangement by Jason Yarde. Roachford, Kirsty Almeida and Natalie Merchant were all impressive.
But, if the buzz afterwards in the bar, in the Barbican underpass, on the tube platform, on the Metropolitan line all seemed to be about Sheila Jordan, it’s hard to argue: it was her night.
BBC Radio 3, London Jazz Festival partner, will be broadcasting Jazzvoice on Tuesday evening.