(Friday 9th November at Barbican Hall. Opening Concert of London Jazz Festival. Review by Rob Edgar)
The tone for the London Jazz Festival festival was already getting established even before the first concert began. When we arrived at the Barbican for the opening night of festival, Swedish-born, London-based singer Cecilia Stalin was performing a set on the free stage, reinforcing right from the start the sheer diversity of where the music can emerge from. English folk-tunes (the melody for Greensleeves), Erykah Badu style grooves, occasional choruses in a Hip-Hop fashion and hints of pounding rock rhythms from time to time. They're all there to be used. The next ten days are going to be some journey
The main event for the night however, was Jazz Voice., the official opening concert. Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, it was, as ever, an ambitious, large scale event; hosted by the legendary John Sessions (who started with some uncanny impressions of Al Pacino and Alan Rickman) it featured a smorgasbord of singers under the masterful direction of conductor/arranger Guy Barker whose set has been described as “Jazz gig, variety show, symphonic suite”.
Backed by Barker's 40-strong orchestra, Brendan Reilly was the first to take the stage with a rendition of Billie Holiday’s I’m Gonna Lock My Heart, it started out almost like a lament but abruptly changed into a Cab Calloway style swing, Reilly raising the roof throughout. This served as a prelude to the fantastic Juliet Roberts singing Do Right Woman. Unassuming and entirely un-flashy, she chose to direct the focus towards her considerable vocal talent; at one point the speakers distorted under the strain of her voice and you got the feeling that, at times, even in the full 1850-seat hall, she could have done without the microphone.
Roberts’s strong, powerful and direct voice was contrasted by Natalie Duncan’s melismatic and softer approach to Devil in Me, before Claire Martin took to the stage with the Thomas Dolby song which featured on her debut album, Keys to my Ferrari.
There were moments that the band got to showcase what they were made of; the instrumental medley that opened the second half contained Charles Mingus’s Boogie Stop Shuffle and Thelonius Monk’s ’Round Midnight, it seemed like a microcosm of the whole festival.
Boy George made an appearance singing Always on my Mind, and You’ll Lose a Good Thing. Junior Giscombe sang Mama used to say, Imelda May sang her own composition Meet you on the Moon which had some lush and resonant harmonies and Patti Austin rounded off the night with an emotional rendition of Lean on Me which was “dedicated to everyone who is on the east coast right now”.
It was Gwyneth Herbert who really stole the show though, her version of Dead End Street which just ever so slightly ventured into the world of Mahler or Shostakovich in Barker's vivid orchestration, whilst she used every nuance her voice would give her resulting in a truly moving performance.
With so many singers hurriedly taking to the stage and leaving again it sometimes left you wanting to hear more from each individual. It would have been nice to hear more from Gwyneth Herbert especially but the final piece of the night Aretha Franklin Medley had everyone on their feet and judging by the rapturous applause, the audience certainly went home happy.