REVIEW: Sarah McKenzie + Gary Crosby’s Nu Troop at the 2017 Cork Jazz Festival,

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie / Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue with Gary Crosby’s Nu Troop
(Cork Jazz Festival, The Everyman, 27 October, 2017. Review by Peter Jones.)

This was an intriguing chalk-and-cheese double bill, illustrating two wildly opposed approaches to jazz.

Australian singer and pianist Sarah McKenzie is an easy-on-the-ear mainstream entertainer in the style of Diana Krall. Berklee-educated, at the age of 28 she is already four albums into her career, has secured a recording contract with Impulse, and is currently on a lengthy European tour. She has developed a cool, professional stage show that isn’t so much polished as French-polished: the band’s delivery is so slick that even the solos sound rehearsed.

McKenzie sprinkles her own compositions among the standards, the latter including Paris in the Rain from her newest eponymously-titled album, and One Jealous Moon. There’s a bit of Latin (her own De Nada, Jobim’s Triste), a bit of blues (I’ve Got The Blues Tonight) and a clutch of tastefully-presented chestnuts – I Won’t Dance, I’m Old Fashioned, Day In Day Out. The well-drilled band consisted of Jo Caleb on guitar, Tom Farmer on bass and Marco Valeri on drums. It was more enjoyable when they relaxed a little and let rip, as on One Jealous Moon.

Gary Crosby (introduced, to general merriment, as Gary Numan) is one of the founders of London’s Tomorrow’s Warriors organization that has done so much to bring on new talent in recent years (and won the education category of the recent Parliamentary Jazz Awards). With Crosby on this occasion were a clutch of young turks and one old stager – collectively named the Nu Troop. The old stager was fiery tenorman Denys Baptiste, and the idea was to perform Kind Of Blue – a canny populist move with this first-night audience, many of whom looked as if they were dipping a cautious toe into the swirling waters of jazz. For the musicians, Kind of Blue the challenge was of a different kind: how to perform such an iconic suite in a respectful manner without merely reproducing the original? The inevitable, unwelcome result of such an attempt would be to invite direct comparison.

The younger members of the Nu Troop were tentative at the start, nerves betrayed by a ragged ending to So What. But Baptiste’s experience and class steadied the ship: he had no interest in cloning Coltrane, and pianist Alex Ho likewise came up with a sweet, jagged solo that was very much post-Bill Evans. On Freddie Freeloader alto saxophonist Alexandra Topczewska aimed for Cannonball’s cool lyricism, while Mark Kavuma on trumpet was likewise looking to approximate Miles’s sparseness, particularly on All Blues. Drummer Sam Jones, who hadn’t even had the chance to rehearse with the band, was presented with the thankless task of responding to Jimmy Cobb’s minimalism, and found the solution sometimes by laying out altogether, and sometimes by just ticking his way around the cymbals.

Blue in Green was brief and gorgeous. By the time they reached Flamenco Sketches (the other track from the album that, according to Crosby, nobody plays live) Topczewska was showing her true colours with a lyrical, breathy solo that floated serenely above the tune’s elusive structure. They ended with Milestones – a good choice of closer, since the band could finally rock out, and it featured a great Binker-and-Moses type interlude from Baptiste and Jones.

The enthusiastic audience response was proof (if needed) that the Nu Troop’s performance was real jazz, the rough with the smooth, a tightrope act of genuine improvisation which thrilled, because we knew it could all have plummeted to earth at any moment.

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