Review: Jazz at Cafe Society

Gwyneth Herbert, Alexander Stewart, China Moses


Jazz at Cafe Society
(Tricycle Theatre Kilburn, 17th July 2012. Review by Augustina Dias)


Fresh from its London Jazz Festival premiere at the Southbank Centre, Alex Webb’s revue charts the meteoric rise and eventual decline of Café Society, New York’s first non-segregated nightclub. The club’s founder Barney Josephson (played by Radio 3 DJ Max Reinhardt) narrates the turbulent story of this pioneering establishment with extracts from his memoirs.

His story punctuates expertly rendered jazz classics first immortalised by the great musicians of the era, many of whom had their first spot on his stage: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, to name but a few. Lena Horne recalled her time on Café Society’s stage as ‘the sweetest spot I’d ever had.’

The show’s outstanding cast had many sweet spots of their own: Paris-based singer China Moses, with a sweet yet powerful voice reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald, did justice to old favourites like ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’, and ‘Parlez-Moi d’Amour’. Gwyneth Herbert purred her way from jazz, via her spine-tingling arrangement of folk song ‘Lord Randall’, to early R & B; her husky, sultry tones were the ideal compliment to Moses’ style. Alexander Stewart lent a more contemporary feel to proceedings, and the three came together for some successful trios.

The ‘Café Society All Stars’ octet were sensational, both accompanying the singers and in their own right. In the horns, there were exceptional solos from each of the musicians, especially Sue Richardson on trumpet and a memorable trombone solo from Nathaniel Cross, earning him an enthusiastic round of applause. Nathaniel Facey, too, executed some skilful solos, and Frank Griffith displayed his first-class skills on both tenor sax and clarinet. Together the musicians proved their range and versatility performing strongly characterized songs in a variety of styles, nailing each one with complete confidence.

‘Jazz at Café Society’ situates the development of Josephson’s nightclub well as part of the civil rights movement of the early Twentieth Century. One night at the end of her spot, Billie Holiday sang the poignant, disturbing song ‘Strange Fruit’, with just a spotlight on her face, and no encore, a moment that would define her career. It was paid due homage as the show’s finale, with Moses stepping into Holiday’s shoes. Josephson recalls telling Lena Horne that ‘a song tells a story’: it is Webb’s celebration of the music of the time that carries us through his touching narrative of such a unique (and thankfully not forgotten) place in musical and cultural history.

All of the remaining performances at the Tricycle of Jazz at Cafe Society are sold out. It is to be hoped that this show can be heard, and seen again, and soon.

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