REVIEW: Different Every Time; an evening with Robert Wyatt at the QEH (2014 EFG LJF)

Robert Wyatt and trombonist Annie Whitehead.
 Still taken from Mark Kidel’s Free Will and Testament: The Robert Wyatt Story (2003)

Different Every Time; an evening with Robert Wyatt
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, 23rd November 2014. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by John L Walters)

Robert Wyatt seemed amused that anyone would spend time writing a book about him. ‘It’s not a book I would have written,’ he said to Marcus O’Dair, author of Different Every Time (Serpent’s Tail) the authorised biography of the musician. ‘It’s not a subject that interests me. But thanks!’

O’Dair began the evening by asking Wyatt for his memories of the Southbank Centre. Wyatt had visited the 1951 Festival of Britain as a small boy, and in 2001 he curated the annual Meltdown festival – an experience he describes as ‘heaven’.

Wyatt admitted that nervousness made him talkative, but that was to our advantage: for more than an hour we were treated to a delightful stream of anecdote, opinions, confessions, thumbnail portraits, digressions and heartfelt statements, initially coaxed by his biographer and then in response to a diverse series of questions from the devoted audience. The subject matter ranged from Kevin Coyne to Ukraine; from Henry Cow to hip-hop, and Wyatt handled his interlocutors with grace, good humour and insight.

After the interval we heard from Orphy Robinson, who contributed the tune Pastafari to Wyatt’s 2007 album Comicopera. Robinson played an electronic mallet instrument alongside a laptop bursting with disembodied voices – it was like a funkier version of The Books . The solo set was a counterintuitive preface to a screening of Free Will and Testament: The Robert Wyatt Story (2003).

This inspiring documentary of Wyatt working at home in Louth, Lincolnshire was directed by Mark Kidel and produced by Jez Nelson. The film [Extract] is interspersed with studio performances of Wyatt singing with a version of Annie Whitehead’s Soupsongs band that played the QEH in 2000 (REVIEWED HERE).

There was a bittersweet pleasure in hearing and seeing trumpeter Harry Beckett, who died in 2010, adding his magical, bubbling solo voice to the Wyatt repertoire. Wyatt makes pop music that’s in edgy but ultimately friendly dialogue with jazz. Wyatt’s extreme sensitivity to everything – sound, art, other musicians, politics – was evident in both halves of the evening ‘The political is personal,’ he stated. In a moment to treasure in Free Will and Testament, Wyatt muses calmly that when he gets really depressed about the dire state of the world, he cheers himself up with the thought that at least jazz exists.

The entire evening made a thoughtful closing act to yet another great London Jazz Festival.

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