Xantoné Blacq/Pee Wee Ellis/Patches Stewart
(Hideaway, Streatham, EFG LJF. 13 November 2015. Review by Peter Jones.
Who can forget James Brown’s warning to his band whenever the soloing became a little too free: ‘Don’t play no mo’ jazz!’ Well it seems jazz is having the last word, because Brown’s bandleader, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, stands accused of the very crime his late employer suspected him of. At any rate, he played some righteous tenor saxophone at this packed-out date on the opening night of the London Jazz Festival. Perhaps being the co-author of Cold Sweat and Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud isn’t enough for him.
Tonight’s bandleader Xantoné Blacq only brought the 74-year-old on towards the end of the first set. When asked to say a few words, Pee Wee deliberated for a while before declaring: ‘I’m not a speech-maker, I’m still trying to learn how to play the saxophone.’
It had been a fine, melodic but relatively low-key start to the gig, the highlight of which was the lovely Till Brönner/Larry Klein ballad A Distant Episode, featuring Patches Stewart on flugelhorn. The tempo picked up as soon as Pee Wee hit the stage, with Blacq doing his vocoder party-piece on his own tune What You Talkin’ About. This was followed by The Chicken (aka Chicken Soup), the old jam session favourite recorded by Jaco Pastorius and beloved of bass players, but penned by Ellis.
An energetic and engaging performer with a style reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, Xantoné Blacq gives the impression that he can’t quite believe his luck at playing in the company of such fine musicians. But of course luck has nothing to do with it: hard work, a positive attitude and prodigious talent have been at least as important. He first came to public notice as the pianist with Amy Winehouse’s band, and was joined tonight by the musical director of that band, bassist Dale Davis. The rhythm section was completed by a third Winehouse alumnus, drummer Nathan Allen. So Blacq was very much the pivot of this ensemble, being both the core of the rhythm section, and also – like messrs Stewart and Ellis – a front man of quality.
In an enjoyably varied gig, there were moments of sheer class, like Blacq’s samba tune Makes Me Wanna, from his first album, Ellis’s slow burning mellow groove New Moon, that opened the second set, and his James Bond-like Blue Bell Pepper. Blacq’s solo piece, a gorgeous solo take on The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, was another highlight. The gig ended with a long-standing live favourite, his funked-up version of the Beatles’ Drive My Car. It’s hard to understand why Xantoné Blacq isn’t already a household name, but his day is surely coming soon.
LINK: Preview to this gig