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Tal Wilkenfeld at Ronnie Scott’s (2019 EFG LJF)

Tal Wilkenfeld
(Ronnie Scott’s, London Jazz Festival, Saturday 16 November. Review by Rob Mallows)

It had been, Tal Wilkenfeld told the audience at a rammed Ronnie Scott’s, 12 years since she’d last appeared on stage at the club.

A lot of clapping and knowing nods from much of the audience: she was referring to a much ballyhooed at the time live show by the blues-rock guitarist Jeff Beck, in which the young Australian-born bass prodigy arguably stole the show (judging by her Wikipedia page and numerous YouTube comments) with an impressive showing of raw, blues bass playing that made music fans sit up and notice.

Well, she’s undergone something of a transformation since then. Scratch that. It’s a full-blown metamorphosis. She’s gone from bass ingénue to full-on singer-songwriter and the change was, I suspect, responsible for some of the bewildered looks in the audience last night.

Tal Wilkenfeld. (Photo: Mandy Hall/Creative Commons

It certainly was for this reviewer, who brought Wilkenfeld’s first album Transformation on the back of seeing clips from that gig (perhaps the clue was in the album title?). She had metaphorically dropped off my musical radar since, having gone on to play bass with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Krantz, Toto and others.

From hunkering down silently by the bass amp to the centre stage spotlight, in those 12 years she has clearly matured and – while still a super-strong, inventive bassist – chosen the singer-songwriting path for her future. And I suspect, on the back of this strong, well-received show, she has made the right commercial choice.

The transformation is most dramatically seen in her stage presence: the hair seemed even bigger than previously, frequently covering her face as her singing intensified, and her stage gear was sparkly and silvery, metaphorically screaming ‘look at me’. No more T-shirts and jeans for Tal. And the music is now less jazz, more angst-filled, emotionally charged ballads and soft-rock, with her voice arguably more prominent than her bass playing.  She even switched from bass to acoustic guitar on many tracks, hinting at the change in focus.

At times it could have been Alanis Morissette up there. Every song dripped with the sharp pain of love and loss, anger, and a degree of modulated aggression. There was a strong Tom Petty rock vibe to many of the songs, such as second track Under The Sun, taken from her second solo album, 2019’s Love Remains.

She can certainly kick metaphorical ass and, along with show band Jeremy Stacey on drums (and producer/instigator of her new album), Chris Price on keyboards and slide guitar and Owen Barrie on guitar, rustle up a lot of gusto and vibrant musical interplay.

The title track of that album, Love Remains, was dedicated to the bartender, the only person in the audience brave enough to answer her request to ‘get personal’ and confirm they’d loved and lost someone who didn’t love all parts of them. And you could tell she was dipping deep into the emotional well on this track, which got huge applause. Other songs were pure Seattle 1993 grunge, as Barrie’s scratchy, angular guitar complemented Wilkenfeld’s smooth, often under-stated playing.

However, it was the slower tracks where her playing and singing melded together the best, particularly when she played her five-string bass alone on one cut (frustratingly, she didn’t give out every song title).

You knew you were in a very un-jazzy jazz Festival gig when Wilkenfeld closed her set with a cover of The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now (a first for the club, surely) which was – largely thanks to Barrie’s scratchy guitar playing – the standout song. As the song developed, and Wilkenfeld and Stacey duelled for five minutes with metre and melody, a glimpse of the fantastically organic jazz-blues bass-player of twelve years ago was there to see.

But, that’s was all you got of ‘Old Tal’. ‘New’ Tal Wilkenfeld had a new (justifiable) swagger and almost contemptuous snarl hidden behind her mane of curls. She has clearly been energised by the switch to putting song-writing front and centre.

On that basis I can see her, like Esperanza Spalding, mining that musical sweet spot of bassist/singer/songwriter. There’s plenty of territory for her to grab her share.

At points I scanned the audience for their reaction. There were quite a few men who, in contrast to their enraptured wives or partners, looked confused, even disappointed. Clearly, many were expecting more blues and jazz bass pyrotechnics at a Ronnie Scott’s jazz festival gig.

They didn’t get it. But what they did get was a confident, articulate and passionate song-writer who was telling her UK fans: ‘I’m back …. and this is the new me’.

I’m sure she won’t leave it another 12 years.

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