Alice Zawadzki Band & Rob Luft Quintet + Amika String Quartet
(Livestreamed from Cambridge Jazz Festival, 21 November 2020. Review by Amy Sibley-Allen)
This double bill livestreamed from the Junction Theatre in Cambridge provides a delightful two hours of music and storytelling from Alice Zawadzki and Rob Luft, accompanied in each set by their own bands and the dynamic Amika String Quartet – featuring four RNCM graduates: violinists Laura Senior and Simmy Singh, violaist Lucy Nolan and cellist Peggy Nolan.
Anglo-Polish vocalist, violinist, songwriter and composer Zawadzki starts the evening off with the first set – an hour’s musical menagerie with original songs from her solo albums, China Lane (2014) and Within You Is a World of Spring (2019) – alongside old Sephardic tales and arranged poems. The breadth of repertoire highlights Zawadzki’s wide-ranging influences and her ability to both compose and deftly perform all manner of styles and songs.
Opening with China Lane, Zawadzki’s pure, captivating vocals are gently accompanied by her piano playing and strings – a thoughtful reflection on making time to be curious. Welcoming on stage guitarist Rob Luft, drummer Corrie Dick and double bass player Misha Mullov-Abbado for the second track of the evening – Within You Is a World of Spring, inspired by an Emil Aarestrup poem – expressing how there is always a seed of hope, a possibility for re-growth and change in all of us, no matter how hard things get. Dark, moody and menacing discordant strings set the scene before piano and voice join and build with drums, bass, strings and Luft’s fantastic heavy distorted guitar effects.
Slowing things down for God’s Children, written by Zawadzki after visiting the Calais jungle, it’s a testimony to the characters of those she met – a reminder that each of us deserves a dream of a better life. Switching to violin, Zawdaski plays celtic reels and sings in Spanish for Es Verdad (It Is True), accompanied by bass, drums and guitar. The quartet is welcomed back for a stunning Dame la Mano Palomba (Give Me Your Hand, My Dove), an old Sephardic folk song in Ladino, a Judaeo-Spanish language.
The consoling My Boy of the Birds, an Opera North commission, talks of coexisting dualities within ourselves. Followed by the final track of the set – the characterful, gothic-feeling Cat. Leading into the piece Zawadzki’s storytelling paints a graphic image of a dead cat, thrown from a tower block, with its soul whizzing free – looking for a body to inhabit, before the unlucky recipient becomes half woman half cat. Quite an end.
After a short break, London based guitarist-composer Luft welcomes his quintet to the stage to join the Amika String Quartet, featuring tenor saxophonist Joe Wright, pianist Joe Webb, bass guitarist Tom McCredie and drummer Corrie Dick. The set takes us on a journey of Luft’s original compositions largely from his albums Riser (2017) and Life is the Dancer (2020) with Celtic, West-African and contemporary jazz influences.
One Day in Romentino immediately sets the tone and, should one have forgotten, reminds us of Luft’s seemingly effortless and virtuosic guitar skills. With changing tempos and trademark guitar distortions the piece showcases the interaction between Luft and Wright on tenor saxophone with a backdrop of sweeping strings. Followed by Snow Country’s gentle melodic pace and Webb’s deft piano – the empathetic interactions between the quintet as a whole are clear.
The strings step back for Endless Summer, a world premiere of the piece. Its ruminative feel and drifting saxophone line expresses its title perfectly. The lilting Expect the Unexpected, commissioned for the London Jazz festival in 2017 by the late John Cumming, has a moving string intro and allows Luft’s astonishing playing and effects to come to the fore.
The folky, Nick Drake-esque Derek is Luft’s tribute to the avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey – the bedrock of the free improvisatory world and a huge influence. A stunning and melodic track. For the final piece Luft invites Zawadzki back to the stage to sing Willow Weep for the Dancer with the quintet, a medley of Willow Weep for Me and the title track from his album Life is a Dancer. It is glaringly evident that Zawadzki and Luft absolutely love what they do, and what they do so exceptionally well – it radiates from them both and is incredibly infectious. A joy of an evening all round.