Live review

Jazz Voice at the Royal Festival Hall (2019 EFG LJF)

Jazz Voice
(Royal Festival Hall. EFG London Jazz Festival. 16 November 2019. Review by Dominic Williams)

To baby boomers, the format of this show might seem an oddity – six vocalists, a choir and a piano player performing one song each, in two sets, in front of a big jazz band with strings. Up to the 1960s, though, the revue format, an all-music variation on vaudeville or variety, was quite a common way of presenting live music. And, in the Spotify/YouTube era, listening to a song list curated on the assumption that, if you like this, you might like that, is a commonplace. It’s a way of introducing you to acts you might not otherwise hear, plus here the rare opportunity to hear a big jazz band, impeccably directed by Guy Barker, who also wrote the arrangements.

Cecile McLorin Salvant. (Photo: EFG London Jazz Festival/Tatiana Gorilofsky)

Thoughtful programming provided two star names as draws, singing in the middle of the set order, and surrounded by lesser known acts, few of whom were appearing elsewhere in London Jazz Festival. The large audience had evidently come to be entertained by all the acts, not just the stars, and was happy to give marks for effort as well as attainment. The Stevie Wonder medley mass finale was greeted with a standing ovation and everyone went home happy, so this was a very successful event.

All the voices we heard gave a good account of themselves. They all made a decent fist of singing jazz, even if it was not their natural environment. They all got a bit swamped by the band at times, especially on the quiet numbers. Admittedly, the band was loud enough that the drummer was imprisoned behind a Perspex screen like a Mafia don on trial, but I shall blame the notorious RFH acoustic, particularly in the rear stalls where I was sitting.

Corinne Bailey Rae. (Photo: EFG London Jazz Festival/Tatiana Gorilofsky)

The main challenge for the performers is that these days it is not enough to have a great voice. To succeed, you also need some individual combination of stage presence, singing style, material and setting that has wide appeal. Cecile McLorin Salvant, accompanied by Sullivan Fortner, has it in bags, but you probably knew that already. In terms of musical ability she is increasingly in a league of her own and showed it on the night. I had tickets for her show the following night so I’m a fan. Corinne Bailey Rae was the other top act, also with a sell-out show of her own at LJF. Her warm and accurate style lets her slip effortlessly across into jazz. Elfin and petite, she gave a dreamy rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust and followed with Stevie Wonder’s Knocks Me off My Feet.

Jazz Voice. (Photo: EFG London Jazz Festival/Tatiana Gorilofsky)

Taking the other acts in running order, Judi Jackson opened with a Nirvana track then Blame it On My Youth, revealing a deep flexible vibrato voice. She has already recorded with Snarky Puppy and is clearly one to watch. Jalon N’Gonda has a gorgeous falsetto voice which is a throwback to ‘60s soul. His version of Al Green’s Take me to the River stood out. Urban Flames are a 22-strong teenage collective from Hackney, singing complex arrangements that give space to their individual voices and cover all the bases from rap to full-on gospel choir. Matthew Whitaker, a 19-year-old blind American pianist, draws obvious comparisons with Stevie Wonder and shone in the finale. It will be interesting to see how his muscular style of playing develops into his 20s. Raul Midon is a 53-year-old blind singer/guitarist, is better known for a percussive style reminiscent of Richie Havens or Jose Feliciano, applied to jazz funk. Here, however, he sang two of his own songs originally lushly arranged and recorded with the Metropole Orkest. Cherise Adams-Burnett showed two sides to her talent. First she sang a Nat King Cole medley in jump jive style, complete with male dancer and period frock. Her second self-penned song was a slinky Latin love song that hinted at a real song writing talent.

Mentions must also go to Guy Barker’s Ronnie Scott’s anniversary medley, a cunning test of jazz tune recognition and to Jumoke Fashola’s succinct and fluent compering.

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