Filomena Campus Quartet
(Vortex, 15 February 2020. Review by Alison Bentley)
Something jazz and the theatre have in common: improvisation. At London’s Vortex, Sardinian vocalist Filomena Campus drew on her knowledge of jazz as well as theatre directing. She and her excellent band, London-based like her, brought Italian warmth and modern jazz to a packed venue.
Lyrics were mostly by Campus, with music by the UK’s Steve Lodder and Dudley Philips. Two songs from their album Jester of Jazz opened: in Monk’s Dance, Lodder’s piano pushed against the strong swing of US-born Rod Youngs’ drums. A powerful dramatic presence from the start, Campus sang Sabbia e Mirto (composed on a flight to Sardinia), improvising with a propulsive rhythmic sense. Philips’ acoustic bass guitar had the natural sound of double bass, but with an electric punch when needed, from his panoply of pedals. Each song was like a small drama- here moving back and forth from funk to drumless sections. The Monk theme continued; Campus had translated a poem by Italian writer Stefano Benni and set it to Monk’s Ugly Beauty. “Music will never be as before.”
A new Lodder/Campus song (Shanghai to Nanjing) took us on a train journey across China, Youngs taking up the grooves, simultaneously funky and sensitive. Campus seemed to improvise from the heart, as if running fearlessly into the unknown, and taking the audience with her. In Yoridori Midori her range of vocal sounds was extraordinary: full of eerie, throaty ululations, atmospheric, confident and creative. You wanted to find out what was going to happen next. Part of the evening’s drama came from the pacing of styles and tempos.
“Find your voice, don’t look back, ” Campus sang deeply and dreamily in English and Sardinian on one Lodder piece, with subtle electronic enhancement. There was musical sweetness: the bass had a Pastorius touch; the piano was reminiscent of the late Lyle Mays, with the lightest of brush movements on the snare. In Philips’ Lighthouse the voice and bass solo climbed up and down the melody’s demanding staircase, blending folk with latin funk.
The second set opened with Campus solo: Jobim’s Águas de Março sung brilliantly over looped vocal harmonies and rhythms in Portuguese, with its joyful deluge of images. She’s lived in London for 20 years, and loves the city’s multiculturalism, she told us. Her swinging new song co-written with Lodder, Unsettled Status, (“We cannot say the B-word!”) was her Gershwin-like love song to London: “When you broke up with me, I’m still wondering why.” Lodder revealed his versatility in a fine Oscar Peterson-esque solo.
Campus’ theatre work- as well as her music- has been inspired by Nobel prize-winning Italian playwright Dario Fo and his wife, actor Franca Rame. (“Dramatists for the voiceless people.”) Part of the set was dedicated to them; Campus’ English translation of a Benni poem was set to Lodder’s music, in Italian and English, folding gentle rock into jazz like a Joni song. Queen of Clowns had a Mays/Metheny feel with densely tense chords. Campus was especially thrilled to have had these lyrics edited by Franca Rame. A piece inspired by Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech (Romeo and Juliet) was in Italian, lyrics and piano lines like water drops on the chordal webs. Dario Fo wrote Stringimi forte i polsi for Rame in the 60s, and the band had kept the relaxed bossa feel, reworking it with intriguing reharmonization.
Three concluding Italian pieces kept the multicultural mood. Philips’ had arranged a Genovese dialect song by Fabrizio De André; it was passionately sung here, with a striking backbeat from Youngs over insistent bass and shadowy sus chords. Impressionisme, by a Sardinian pianist, danced in 7 with darting wordless vocals and agile scatting (singer Maria Pia de Vito was a mentor for Campus.) Youngs’ solo was saved till last, full of dazzling rimshots like tiny explosions. For the Sardinians in the audience, a traditional song- No Potho Reposare, the folk melody arranged by Philips with undulating chords, Lodder’s expansive solo evoking the open spaces of Sardinia.
Campus’ love of London and Sardinia, jazz and the theatre, were combined in an evening of great musical skill and impassioned improvisation.