(Livestreamed from Cadogan Hall, EFG London Jazz Festival 13 November 2020. Review by Leah Williams)
As the EFG London Jazz Festival kicks off this year, it is navigating – as with so many live music events – the new world of online livestreams. An adjustment for us, the audience, as much as for the organisers, but everyone is undoubtedly grateful that a way to still enjoy this hotly anticipated annual event has been found.
Among all the newness, one thing remains reassuringly familiar: the signature opening night Jazz Voice gala. As on previous years, it brings together a diverse collection of some of the biggest names from both established and emerging vocalists across the jazz vocal scene.
But first, opening with an all-swinging extended instrumental introduction to China Moses’ original song Watch Out – with an apt snippet of Thelonious Monk’s Friday the 13th nestled in there – was the illustrious Guy Barker and the excellent EFG London Jazz Festival Ensemble. As China smoothly joined, it was a very promising start, providing hope that energy and funk can remain high even with no live audience.
As usual, the repertoire is wide, ranging across traditional jazz to re-arranged popular music and original compositions. All songs, apart from medleys, are chosen by the featured artists, giving a little insight into the musical personalities of each.
From David McAlmont it’s a homage to inspiration Joni Mitchell with lesser-known song Edith and the King Pin. This offers a change of pace with soft, sweeping string arrangements and David’s trademark high register gliding above with a gentle fortitude – and some particularly impressive sustained notes.
Next up was 2018 Scottish Jazz Rising Star Luca Manning – an ‘old soul for someone so young’ – with an understated rendition of Never Will I Marry, inspired by the Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley recording. Softly sung, the full impact of the vocals did unfortunately get somewhat lost in the mix – the balance didn’t seem to always favour the vocalists throughout the evening.
Zara McFarlane, one of the biggest names to come out of next gen jazz in London over the past few years, performed her own composition Saltwater, replacing the original base of electronic beats with a lush score from Guy Barker. Her distinctive voice and magnetism are palpable even through the screen. However, with this being quite a minimalist and low-key song, it didn’t offer the chance to enjoy the full impact of her vocal capabilities. Possibly not helped by the aforementioned skewed balance, perhaps not always leaving space for the vocalists to shine in quieter moments as it might have done.
An original song – Waiting For You – from veteran Cleveland Watkiss (who performed at the first ever Jazz Voice back in 2002), looking as cool and dapper as ever sporting velvet smoking jacket and shades while comfortably dancing around on stage, laid the scene for the final vocalist in the line-up.
A case of saving the best for last? It was hard not to have this thought as Vanessa Haynes’ smooth and soulful vocals effortlessly entranced, weaving with and soaring above the ensemble to steal the show as she sang gospel number On Revival Day.
After a short intermission, the ensemble was back with the JC Tribute Medley, celebrating the life and contributions of the late John Cumming (1948-2020). The medley was made up of music he loved and artists he worked with, such as Carla Bley, George Russell and Don Weller. It was an aptly celebratory and moving collection, with a particularly haunting excerpt of Andy Sheppard’s Dancing Man and Dancing Woman (with special mention deserved here for the soprano saxophonist).
The rest of the second half proceeded much as the first, with each of the six vocalists taking to the stage for a mix of standards and original compositions. Some real classics included Mean to Me from Zara McFarlane, Lady Sings the Blues from David McAlmont and a strangely relatable Trying Times by Donny Hathaway, arranged by Roberta Flack and expertly delivered by China Moses.
Vanessa Haynes is the final vocalist once again and, inviting the audience to ‘get off the couch and get down’ with the upbeat Mean Man, she brings things to a close in seriously funky style. Her natural presence, impressive vocals and catchy brass riffs from the ensemble do the job nicely.
As is usual for the Jazz Voice gala, all six vocalists meet on stage for a finale – this time a balladic arrangement of Bill Withers’ Lean on Me – chosen for its ‘themes of friendship, community and interdependency’ that have more than their fair share of meaning in current times.
Delivering a little something for everyone, the Jazz Voice gala performed its opening fanfare well and offers a tiny taster of the variety and musical creativity to come across the EFG London Jazz Festival programme. Although I’m sure many will be wishing that Vanessa Haynes had her own gig coming up so that a simple taste wasn’t all we’re left with.