Live reviews

Jazz Sabbath at Pizza Express Soho (2022 EFG LJF)

Jazz Sabbath

(Pizza Express Soho (2nd house) 16 November. Review by AJ Dehany)

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Jazz Sabbath. Photo by AJ Dehany

Adam Wakeman’s incendiary 2020 documentary “Before Black Sabbath: there was Jazz Sabbath”(LINK) broke a story that shocked the worlds of jazz and heavy metal, turning a half century of musical history on its head. It was the revelation that the pathfinding catalogue of the band Black Sabbath was in fact stolen from a prior group called Jazz Sabbath led by pianist Milton Keanes. This instrumental jazz trio recorded two albums in 1969 but these had been thought to have been lost in a warehouse fire until recently recovered and re-released.

The revived trio of pianist Milton Keanes (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Adam Wakeman) with bassman Jacque T’fono (a dead-ringer for Jack Tustin) and drummer Juan Také (the spit of Dylan Howe) doesn’t seem to have aged since their brief creative heyday. Performing two houses at the Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho during the London Jazz Festival at the start of a 10-date UK tour, the pianist shambled onto the stage for the second gig, squinting through a shock of long curly grey hair, the same shade that some kids today strangely dye their hair to, for some reason. It’s yet another example of Keanes’s unacknowledged legacy.

The performance is solid and practised, and jazz more in style than improvising ethos, sticking close to the readings of the Sabbath catalogue as found in the two albums Jazz Sabbath (2020) and Vol. 2 (2022). As a trio they sound less like a purer jazz trio like the old Bad Plus and reminded me more of the jazzy rhythm n’ blues inflected rock sound of the Doors. Fairies Wear Boots is half weird bop number, half Doorsy rock. Evil Woman is inherently a blues jam, and its performance with extra blue notes evidenced the unifying strand that makes the whole enterprise so effective: it reflects the shared heritage of The Blues in the formation of both heavy metal and jazz.

Black Sabbath (the song) is based around that legendary flatted fifth that come to define the transition from blues rock into heavy metal, and which is of course less striking when embedded in jazzy chordal harmony rather than just boldly and baldly stated as in the Sabs version. But their reading might be the most enjoyable crystallization of the overall Jazz Sabbath concept, with an absorbing period sense of 1960s film noir out of Bond or Get Carter energising the arrangement.

There’s plenty of theatrical pastiche. Are they more than a novelty act? Well, kind of… I could listen to the albums any time of year forever but I didn’t find the live experience quite as sustaining; it leans a little heavily on a basic honky jazz pastiche. Maybe more of the film noir sound would give it some style, otherwise I don’t know what they could do to address this— the concept is too strong, too perfect, to mess with. The Jazz Sabbath T-shirts look badass, and in a boss move they have their own limited edition Cornish gin, because of course they do. 

Introducing the eponymous song Black Sabbath itself, Keanes said “We thought we’d get our own back on that band that stole our songs by writing this song. I hope the piano tuner is on speed dial, I’ve beat this like it owed me money!” The waiter told me that the first set had been more ribald than the second, with Keanes throwing water into the piano, which is one way to treat a fifty grand Steinway. I commented that it was in fact probably the Gin, and we agreed that made it better. 

Mention earlier of the Bad Plus reminds me that the clever-clever American trio used to do “Iron Man” as an encore, but playing it more for laughs while the Jazz Sabbath original takes a less obvious route through the material. It is actually a more loving, considered and interesting interpretation, with more space for creativity and less of the snobbishness. They might not have quite the chops of the Bad Plus (few do) but their Sabbath is arguably superior, both as a version and as jazz. 

Speaking of of jazz, I remarked to Keanes afterwards that he clearly wrote the song Changes about jazz chord progressions like the II-V-I, so it was unfortunate that the later metal band seem to have thought it was about some existential development narrative— idiots!

AJ Dehany write about music, art and stuff.

“My name is Lucifer, please take my gin”. Photo by AJ Dehany

Categories: Live reviews

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