Live review

Etuk Ubong and The Etuk’s Philosophy at Pizza Express Jazz Club

Etuk Ubong and The Etuk’s Philosophy 
(Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, 5 August 2019. Review by John L. Walters)

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The band in action at Pizza Express. (iPhone snap by John L Walters)

Trumpeter Etuk Ubong is a fresh new voice in the international jazz scene. It may be a commonplace to say that a jazz musician has a ‘voice’ but it’s true, particularly in the case of a wind instrumentalist. And it’s often the sheer sound, the timbre of that voice that appeals directly to the listener, sometimes transcending the content: the notes, the tunes, the style in which they are performing.

And what first caught my attention about Ubong, a young (b. 1992) Nigerian musician who appeared at Pizza Express last Monday, was the tone of his trumpet playing. Whether playing a simple tune with bass accompaniment or improvising in the upper register, soaring above the frenzied Afrobeat of his superbly drilled band, it’s a great sound, richly textured and generous.

Ubong’s eight-track album Tales of Life gives the casual listener an opportunity to indulge in the musical pleasures of Ubong’s lower register, often accompanied by little more than a piano trio. Though the album includes vocal numbers and some agile bass guitar lines that remind you this is African jazz, Tales of Life fits comfortably alongside several contemporary jazz genres.

By contrast the repertoire of Monday’s gig was taken entirely from his forthcoming album The Purpose of Creation, a lofty title for what proved to be an earthy and urgent sequence of busy compositions. The tunes, with titles such as Life Liberation, Africa Struggle and Mass Corruption, were performed by a young band that hardly paused for breath while the leader improvised magisterially over hocketing riffs and blaring anthems. Keyboards, percussion, bass and drums locked together like clockwork, while the horn section of tenor sax, trombone and second trumpet hit their chords with the precision of a parade drummer. Spiritual Change, with its loping groove and snaking melody, supplied a welcome change of pace.

Ubong sings and chants a little, and there are sincere messages in the music (and his over-long spoken intros), but the main attraction is his warm and inventive trumpet playing. He confided in the audience that his record company is aiming for a Grammy for The Purpose of Creation. He wants more, he says. ‘Two Grammys!’, calls someone in the audience. The album isn’t due until January 2020, but you can get a taste from the new single Black Debtors, whose ferocious, bass-driven groove reaches a trance-like intensity while Ubong hits some stratospheric notes.

BAND LIST

Trumpet/leader – Etuk Ubong
Drums – Robin van Rhijn
Bass – Jamie Benzies
Keyboard – Jack Stephenson
Percussion – Tom Camidge
Trombone – Laura Chiara Impallomeni
Tenor saxophone – James Akers
2nd trumpet – Grifton Forbes-Amos

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