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REVIEW: The Sounds of 2019 at the Jazz Cafe

Vertaal in The Sounds of 2019 at the Jazz Cafe
iPhone snap by Rachel Coombes
The Sounds of 2019 
(Jazz Cafe. 9 January 2019. Review by Rachel Coombes)

After years of tirelessly promoting the best upcoming jazz talent to a small but dedicated audience, the ‘relentlessly determined’ organisation that is Jazz re:freshed, has, over the past few years, been reaping the fruits of its labour. The organisation’s founders, Adam Moses and Justin Mckenzie, have been at the forefront of the jazz wave that has rocked Britain’s music scene, helping to bring artists including Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd and Shabaka Hutchings to wide public attention. Accordingly, when they announce a showcase of three acts which they predict will be big in 2019, we sit up and listen. “If you’re here just to chat with your mates, the door’s over there,” Adam Moses announces at the start of Jazz re:freshed’s The Sounds of 2019 event at Camden’s Jazz Café. He’s no killjoy – he just wants the audience to demonstrate the same level of respect that he has for the bands about to appear (no doubt he was also recognisant of the Jazz Café’s notoriously ‘buzzing’ atmosphere).

Opening the evening was Vertaal (Theo Howarth on keys and Ajit Gill on drums), a duo who describe their sound as ‘spiritual jazz-funk’; this was a fairly apt description of their set, although there was more groove than meditation. Vertaal’s performances are always bolstered by the addition of live guests, who flesh out the duo’s original compositions. Tonight the pair was joined by Loren Hignell on the saxophone, Severin Bruhin on bass guitar and Simon Todd on percussion. Loren’s sunny, bright tone was sumptuous, and his nimble-fingered solos were particularly impressive, especially in the languid, dreamy Shifting (their latest release). Holding the composition together was Theo’s soulful chord progressions (the duo cite Alfa Mist as one of their key influences), which could be heard even in the frenetic middle section during which Ajit’s frenzied cymbal playing sent the audience’s head-bopping into overdrive. The stand-out tune from the group’s set was Kora, with its punchy two-chord keyboard riff, intricate conga rhythms (played by Simon) and lyrical sax lines.

Tenor saxophone player Chelsea Carmichael, already a name familiar to many from her work with Arun Ghosh, the NYJO Jazz Messengers and the SEED Ensemble, debuted her new project next. So new was the project, in fact, that her tunes were yet to be titled. Chelsea had an authoritative stage presence: she exuded an aura of calmness, remaining remarkably motionless even in the funkiest of passages. Her communication with her band members (regular collaborator Arthur O’Hara on bass guitar, Olly Sarkar on drums and James Beckwith on keyboard) was elegant and understated, but not at all to the detriment of the ensemble – transitions were wonderfully smooth and natural. We were promised that tonight’s show would highlight Chelsea’s “love of groove and intricate rhythms” – it did just that. At times, Olly switched to an electric drum pad (attached to his standard kit), bringing the driving rhythms into sharp focus, although never for sustained periods of time. Chelsea’s solos were introspective and melodically spacious – each song was a sort of expansive odyssey, although every one of them was underpinned by a tight structure.

While Chelsea epitomized on-stage serenity, electric violinist (and occasional rapper) Saskia Horton, from the quintet Nihilism, took the stage by storm, dancing rapturously and head-banging her way through the band’s riotous tunes. As the final act of the evening, this quintet was determined to end our night on a note of exuberance. Keyboard player Lorenz Okello-Osengor had no trouble in hyping up the audience: “We’re here to show you some vibes. This is not a show – it’s an experience,” he asserted. “They’re so young!” exclaimed one audience member; their artistry, however, belied the fact that their reported average age is only 20. Abrupt tempo changes were navigated almost faultlessly, and the frequent unison melodic lines between violin and saxophone (played by James Akers, a very impressive performer who was stepping in for Deji Ijishakin) were extremely tight. The stomping tune Beast Mode began with a Terry Riley-esque minimalism but shifted – quite wonderfully – into grime, with Saskia tripping off lyrics so quickly that Lady Leshurr would probably have given a nod of approval. The audience couldn’t resist dancing along to Yoda, which gave an opportunity for bass guitarist Christopher Luu to show off his funk credentials, while Benjamin Appiah on the kit kept the groove steady. This group showed particular promise, and with their overtly experimental ethos and disregard for genre boundaries, they perfectly encapsulated the philosophy of Jazz re:freshed.

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