(Oxford Town Hall, 22nd April 2011, part of Oxford Jazz Festival, review by Hamish Birchall; Photo credit: Barker Evans)
Multi award-winning alto sax virtuoso Soweto Kinch topped the bill last night at the third Oxford Jazz Festival, a four-day Easter treat with over 50 performances, talks, interviews and workshops in 32 venues.
The ornate, cathedral-like space of Oxford Town Hall reverberated to Kinch's exuberant fusion of jazz, hip-hop and MC rap. His intelligent and humorous introductions quickly established a warm rapport with the audience, and the thoughtful and creative spirit behind the music.
The evening's programme was taken from his third and most recent album 'The New Emancipation', a musical exploration of the idea of freedom.
A soulful sax cadenza opened the show, morphing into the medium-slow funk of 'Never Ending', with hints of a reggae drop-beat. Drummer Graham Godfrey ('The Big G') expertly navigated varying time signatures with crackling snare accents, Karl Rasheed-Abel delivered a solid, subterranean bass, guitarist Femi Temowo supplied the first of many mellifluous and apparently effortless solos, not to mention a beaming smile that lasted all evening. The audience was hooked.
Interviewed days before by Julian Joseph on BBC R3's 'Jazz Line-up', Kinch talked about his influences, ranging from Delius to Ellington and Booker Little. His idea was 'to embrace the whole gamut of African diaspora expression to tell this story...'. If it is not always entirely clear how the music and these ideas connect, there is no doubting the sincerity of the project.
'Trying to be a star', had Temowo doubling on backing vocals while Kinch rapped a tale of futile striving for celebrity. Rasheed-Abel was effective on electric bass this time, and again drummer Godfrey shone with a series of increasingly intense fills.
'An ancient worksong' followed, appropriately to a slow shuffle beat, then 'A people with no past', a headlong post-bop tumble seemingly on the edge of chaos but with bravura solos from Temowo and Kinch . The set closed with a dramatic change of mood, 'The love of money', a brooding, lumbering number, Kinch again in declamatory vocal mode.
The second half began with 'Trade', a lazy swing groove. Kinch and Godfrey exchanged rhythmic phrases, and Rashid-Abel took a lyrical and inventive double-bass solo. 'Axis of Evil' had Kinch MC-ing: 'Is the Obama nation an abomination when it bombs a nation?', with echoes of the pioneering socio-political rap of 1970s Gil Scott-Heron.
An instrumental, 'Escape', was introduced as a deliberate excursion 'to a far less morose universe', and succeeded with a subtle but accessible melodic theme.
The evening closed with two audience participation numbers, obviously enjoyed by the whole band. 'Freestyle' showcased Kinch's formidable improvisatory rhyming skill. Members of the audience were invited to shout words beginning with the letters of 'Freedom'. These included 'eggs', 'David Cameron', 'Oxford' and 'mojo'. Improbably, and to the delight of all, Kinch wove them into a coherent and comic rap.
The finale, 'Raise your spirit', had the audience shouting 'spirit' as one, a tribute to Soweto Kinch's talent for fusing diverse genres, and bringing their otherwise fragmented audiences together in one joyful celebration.
Oxford Jazz Festival website