Live reviews

Jazz Voice (EFG LJF 2021)

Jazz Voice

(Royal Festival Hall. 12 November 2021. EFG London Jazz Festival. Live Review by Alison Bentley)

Jazz Voice 2021: Jumoke Fashola. Photo credit Emile Holba / EFG LJF

Think of all that music, all those songs, (and clothes) locked away for so long and suddenly released into the Royal Festival Hall. It was a heady experience: a stage filled with a glorious excess of singers and musicians. Seven vocalists plus one saxophonist/rapper fronted the EFG London Jazz Festival Ensemble. Arrangements were by Guy Barker, who directed them, hair flying like a 19th Century composer.

Jazz Voice 2021: Georgia Cecile with Nikki Yeoh. Photo credit Emile Holba / EFG LJF

It was a well-paced evening, with each soloist taking one piece in each of the two sets. Sweet strings ushered in Glasgow-born Georgia Cécile with her own The Month of May. Commentary on the evening’s attire could fill another article, but suffice to say the ostrich feathers conjured an old-fashioned sense of glamour echoed by the orchestra. You thought of Dakota Staton or Carmen McRae, with a colouring of Amy Winehouse. There was real drama in her singing as she raised her arm, as if to grab the high notes out of the air. In the second set she covered a Judy Garland ballad Do It Again with a wide vibrato linking Garland to modern R&B.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson was just back from the States where she’s been touring with opera singer Andrea Bocelli. She seemed fused with her cello as she sang andplayed the Bee Gees’ How Deep is Your Love standing up. The sonorous cello merged with pizzicato strings as the delicate high voice contrasted with the deep tones. Sing On, Nightingale was her beautiful song written for her friend the beat poet Michael Horovitz; eerie cello harmonics gave way to a gentle groove, where her vocal inflections sounded almost Arabic at times.

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US vocalist Sachal Vasandani’s original tune Because I Love You revealed his rich sound, not unlike Michael Bublé, with elegant, subtle phrasing. He phrased Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away more freely, with more of a Mark Murphy feel, over dark strings and tingling Harmon mutes.

Jazz Voice 2021: Aynur and Guy Barker. Photo credit Emile Holba / EFG LJF

In total contrast, Aynur’s songs were inspired by traditional Kurdish folk songs. In Govende she sang powerfully in impassioned trills, a little like Qawwali but bluesier. The arrangement picked up the rhythmic lines with big life-affirming horn riffs. The mesmerising throaty sound of the unaccompanied vocal opening of Hedur drew whoops of appreciation from the audience; Nikki Yeoh’s piano rippled into a fast oriental groove.

American Michael Mayo began You and You with leaping arpeggios, Bobby McFerrin-style, using the voice as an instrument. He had a deep vocal timbre all his own, on a jumpy groove. When he reached up into falsetto in Cure there was superb control, but he never lost touch with his emotional core.

London’s Ego Ella May sang Mr. Magic (from Grover Washington via Amy Winehouse) with an innocence that seemed totally herself. She’s just won 2021 Jazz FM Vocalist of the Year award, and had a quiet confidence, closing her eyes and drawing the audience in. Her song For the Both of Us had a perfect match of arrangement and voice, harp and flutes framing the delicate vocals.

US saxophonist/rapper Lakecia Benjamin played her Syeeda’s SongFlutewith a bop-to-soul energy that was both fierce and fun. She’s worked with Gregory Porter and Stevie Wonder and has a powerful stage presence. It was inspiring to hear her rap against the strings in March On.

Jazz Voice 2021: Adeline. Photo credit Emile Holba / EFG LJF

French-Caribbean vocalist Adeline is also an accomplished bassist, and she sang her original Twilight with immaculate timing, springing off the groove. Her voice could be both strong and breathy, with shades of Brandy and Erykah Badu. There was more gospel and Aretha in her moving version of Donny Hathaway’s Someday We’ll All Be Free, the voice totally focused among the filigree strings and slow backbeat.

At the concert’s centre, and beginning of the second set, was Guy Barker’s remarkable medley of his arrangements of jazz film scores. The wah wah drawl of A Streetcar Named Desire gave way to the hard bop groove of Sonny Rollins’ Alfie’s Theme. Special mention for Mark Kavuma’s plaintive trumpet in Miles Davis’ Ascenseur pour L’échafaud. The punchy 60s swing of The Man With the Golden Arm led to the orchestra singing along to the slinky backbeat of Quincy Jones’ The Italian Job.  Taxi Driver was deliciously like Charlie Parker with strings, contrasting with the up swing of Anatomy of a Murder by Duke Ellington; Monk’s Round Midnight was a magnificent conclusion.

The vocalists, joined by compere Jumoké Fashola, left us wanting more with the finale- harmonising in Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, with its mention of war and hate, but ultimately positive message and uplifting chords. The standing ovation said it all.

LINK: Jazz Voice is also available on BBC iPlayer

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