REVIEW: Jacob Collier Solo Show at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Jacob Collier. Cheltenham 2016.
Photo by John Watson/ © jazzcamera.co.uk

Jacob Collier Solo Show
(Jazz Arena, Cheltenham Jazz Festival. 29th April 2016. Review by Luke Davidson) 

I guess I am just spreading the news. Those who have heard of Jacob Collier will almost certainly have listened to him already via one of his brilliant self-made YouTube videos. They won’t need me to tell them that this young man is almost certainly a genius of some description, even if you, like me, hate the word ‘genius’ unless it comes attached with a signed certificate of the number of hours practised along side.

But in the event you have never heard of him, then you can go straight away to YouTube and see the reasons why he has received plaudits from the greatest living jazz musicians: Hancock, Corea, Metheny. They know ‘talent’ when they hear it. His one man show is an exercise in amazement; predictably, the exits after his gig at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival were full of middle-aged people shaking their heads in wonder. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not gushing. I am simply saying that any person with an ounce of musical sensibility will be thinking the same thing: how the Donald did he get to be this good, this fast?

Did I not say? Collier is perhaps 20 or 21 and looks like he might be asked to take his GCSEs soon. So, it is something extraordinary to consider that he is working closely with the boffins at MIT to create a special studio designed for advancing precisely the kind of show he presented to a wowed Cheltenham Jazz Festival audience. For Collier represents something interesting as well as remarkable. He weds a blistering musical technique and sensibility to modern technology, so that he performs complex big band arrangements with nothing more than all the paraphernalia of today’s musical geeks.

In a way, Collier represents the first jazz superstar of the iPod generation, a generation which is less tribal than previous ones, happier to ditch exclusivity to particular genres for the pleasure of grazing between 60s pop, Brazilian grooves, and world music, without feeling embarrassed and compromised. Collier’s music recycles hundreds of styles, often in breathtakingly fast sequences: soul, A Capella, beatboxing, Ravel, Quincy Jones, funk, and so on. He takes songs from the American Songbook (including Gershwin, Bacharach and Brian Wilson) and zips them up. So we heard a blistering Fascinating Rhythm, a spartan, funky Close to You and a lush and tender In My Room. His music is testament to an eclectic ear, one that has hoovered up everything and rejected nothing. Well, with the exception of death metal maybe.

Collier, I suspect, is not especially well served by presenting him as a ‘jazz artist’. Ultimately, it is limiting. But it makes sense to start there because he is, first and foremost, a brilliant jazz musician with a piano sound to die for. I daresay he will do piano trio work in due course and be taken seriously as an heir to some great defunct jazz pianist. But, in the meantime, he weds a rich harmonic language with a Brazilian sensibility. I mean, this guy, does many of the things a Brazilian jazz musician does – but out of a North London postcode.

Jacob Collier. Cheltenham 2016
Photo by John Watson/ © jazzcamera.co.uk

I did say that he plays all the instruments on stage? I didn’t? Well, he does: drums, percussion, piano, upright bass, fretless bass, the melodica, and assorted synths. But, in a way, if you spend too long marvelling at that, you might ignore the simple truth that he plays them all with breathtaking confidence. This enables him to create complex arrangements of great power, complexity and emotional reach. And while he is a polite, well-spoken young dweeb, when reaching for adjectives to describe his style, one has to quietly move out of English and try a few fancy French ones: ‘panache’, ‘verve’, and ‘élan’ spring to mind. Perhaps I may be allowed the Italian ‘brio’ and Castilian ‘bravado’, too, even in these days of Brexit, when presumably we should be content with jolly good English words untainted by Brussels bureaucrats? So, if you still haven’t gone on to YouTube and listened to him, prepare yourself for those polyrhythms, and rich harmonies, sung in swooping vocals blended expertly through a vocoder. Better still, wait until his album, In My Room, comes out on July 1st, and listen to him then, for a test of his achievement will be the extent he works solely on the ears.

Is Collier the future of jazz music? Or jazz musicians? That seems less likely. For one thing, Collier has set a bar to multi-instrumentalism that is going to be pretty hard to beat unless there are lots of kids out there who have spent quite as much time in their rooms as Collier has (his most affecting performance was the Beach Boys’ In My Room and he also performed a languid Jarrett-esque song called Hideaway: Collier is clearly the introvert’s introvert). But I can’t help feeling that, despite the very proper admiration one can feel for Collier’s achievements, and the existence of wonderful simultaneous projections behind him to delight the eye, there is something inevitably slightly soulless about a one-man show. Collier is enjoying himself on stage and it is good to watch in the way it is a good to watch a trapeze artist; it is the thrill of the extreme. Don’t get me wrong. It is musically exciting. But, inevitably, with pre-recorded loops and tight arrangements courtesy of processors, you miss the joy of a group of musicians communicating with one another.

We are at a state in history now that it is possible for one man to produce the power of the world’s most sophisticated ensembles. But now that we know that with a looping device a musician can recreate almost anything, does it follow that other musicians will be drawn, like Collier, to want to play everything? Most, I suspect, will continue to love the idea of the band, even though it means the indignity of long hours failing to agree rehearsal times. But, in the meantime, Collier is a future of music. He is busily setting a new benchmark for what a musician does, what it is possible to do. And if that does not pique your curiosity, then what are you doing still reading this review?

LINKS: Jacob Collier’s YouTube Channel

Jacob Collier sings at the 2013 Dankworth Prize
Review of Jacob Collier – as pianist in 2014 in Misha Mullov-Abbado’s Quintet
Review of Jacob Collier – as backing vocalist in 2014 at Jason Rebello’s album launch
Photos by Carl Hyde of the debut solo show in July 2015
Tina Edwards gets the scoop on the album plans

Categories: miscellaneous

4 replies »

  1. I really enjoyed reading this review and it has made me want to listen to Jacob's music. He is clearly a talented boy and one to watch for the future.

  2. Can thoroughly endorse this fine review which sums up an outstanding performance by an extraordinary young musician.Two standing ovations by a packed arena were testament to Collier's astonishing achievement.

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