Yazz Ahmed, Arun Ghosh, Self Esteem
(Sage Gateshead. BBC Proms. 21 July 2023. Review by AJ Dehany)
Every year the BBC Proms is accused of watering itself down, a criticism predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding: that the Proms is a classical music festival at the exclusion of all else. The series would be better described as ‘art music’ with its long history of creative inclusivity seeing jazz, pop, rock and electronic crossovers all a regular feature of the programming. Soft Machine played a Late Prom in 1970, for goodness’ sake (which may have been spurred by Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra in 1969).
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In the twenty-first century it’s nothing shocking to hear Kanye West or Metallica with an orchestra. But there’s still some sniffiness. No-one accuses Stravinsky or Mark-Anthony Turnage of being lightweight for invoking jazz vocabulary, or Philip Glass for symphonising David Bowie, or John Cage for his full-on assault on the very tenets of what proper classical heads consider proper music. Postmodernism aggressively courted the equivalence of ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ culture, and is decried as if the theory created the landscape, rather than being born as a description of that landscape as creative artists found inspiration in more diverse sources than self-appointed gatekeepers cared to permit.
With all that in mind, it’s a great unifying venture for the 2023 Proms season to up sticks from its home at London’s Albert Hall and take up residence at Sage Gateshead for a whole weekend, and to find our new northern pop superstar Self Esteem topping the bill. It’s not just some stylistic game of ‘add an orchestra’. A little bit surprising, sure, but a perfectly realised step for the acclaimed Brit- and Mercury-nominated solo project of Rebecca Lucy Taylor to perform her zeitgeist-defining pop with Robert Ames and the Royal Northern Sinfonia.
After the huge artistic, critical and commercial success of 2021’s Prioritise Pleasure, she described in a July 2022 interview how ‘Album Three’ was shaping up, rueful about the budget constraints she had faced as an emerging artist. With hindsight her comments buckle with the irony of it all: “Imagine if I had access to an orchestra or a full choir.” Well here it is. There is a double irony that it might not be sustainable to entertain ambitions of working with an orchestra as a regular thing, and this was something she joked about onstage. The arrangements seemed convincing and simpatico, as if they’d always been there despite these songs being familiar from the sparser, more electronic album masterworks. The strings seemed to add a whole extra level of emotional heft to these documents of a quirky artistic mindset alive to the absurd minutiae of life as we find it and are forced through it.
Self Esteem’s concert at Sage One mid-evening on Friday was broadcast on Sunday on BBC Radio Three (with swear warnings of course) but the late concert was broadcast live, introduced by broadcaster Liz Alker, who is in the vanguard of redefining classical music as art music to include just great music. After the surprisingly emotional sucker punch of Self Esteem, the late night concert in the more intimate hub of Sage Two picked up the personal emotional thread with sets from Arun Ghosh and Yazz Ahmed. I must admit that the emotional appeal of the Ghosh set and the spacious sound world of the Ahmed set might be better appreciated as Matt Johnson advised you to listen to his albums: “Play it very loud, very late and very alone.”
Seclused, you might say: Arun Ghosh’s recent album Seclused In Light is suffused in melancholy, dealing with the passing of his father during lockdown. His set of melodic Indo-Jazz was as abundantly joyous as ever but with a sombre edge pushing through. Pianist Jamil Sherif adds crunchy McCoy Tyner stylings to the tunes, and “local heroes” bassist John Pope and saxophonist Faye MacCalman fit right into Ghosh’s vision. When Pope joined Ghosh for one night on his tour last year I was astonished, though not surprised, that he just picked it up like a legend, and MacCalman seemed especially capable of adapting her style to the melodic impetus of Ghosh’s particular ethno-jazzic take. The avuncular Arun tends to pick up musicians for his band wherever he plays (Patrick Hadfield wrote about the Glasgow gig with Glaswegian guitarist Kapil Seshasayee), and there’s a bit of seat-of-the-pants about it all. These virtuosi perform magic from a day’s rehearsal, but to adapt Self Esteem’s comment “imagine if I had access to an orchestra”, well, we’d love to see them with access to, not an orchestra (well, maybe), but just more time to really settle in and develop together.
Closing the evening, Yazz Ahmed’s set was a welcome in-person event after her 2020 booking was stymied by covid. It eventually emerged as an impressive livestream concert from Sage One involving twelve musicians and no live audience (so, imagine if she had access to twelve musicians and an audience). The quartet is more dynamically familiar, with roles that mirrored those in the Arun Ghosh quintet. Ralph Wyld’s harmonic invention on the vibraphone is as striking as Jamil Sherif’s on the piano, Dave Manington (bass) and Ben Brown (drums) are as solid and funky and easy to overlook as John Pope and Dave Walsh: both rhythm sections are so deeply in the pocket that their creativity is embedded rather than showy or distracting, and they deserve a shout-out for that. The quartet’s atmospheric set didn’t wow me as much as their more focused performance on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune a few days earlier, but tends to sound better the more you absorb yourself in its lovely mystery and deeply-felt commitment to social, political, and just human issues.
The highlight of the evening, maybe of the whole Proms season so far, was Ghosh’s perfectly judged and beautifully played reading of ‘Going Home’, the theme from Local Hero, by local hero Mark Knopfler. Michael Brecker originally played it, and saxophonists love to absolutely blow this one out for all the instrument is worth. Ghosh played it solo on the clarinet, delicately, lightly and lyrically, literally seclused in light, as a tribute and gift to the north east, like the national treasure that he is. The evening itself (as part of both the Proms and the GemArts Masala festival celebrating South Indian culture, and supported by Jazz North East) was a gift to and from the north. It should go some way to answering criticisms of ‘watery Proms’ with the record of a memorable evening of deeply felt music that is serious, fun, beautiful, moving, and unafraid to cross musical and geographical boundaries.
AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk