REVIEW: An Evening of Jazz with the Abram Wilson Foundation

Yelfris Valdes and the band in the first half
Photo credit: Sharan Jaswal/ Abram Wilson Foundation
An Evening of Jazz with the Abram Wilson Foundation
(St James Theatre, 14th June 2016. Review by Naoise Murphy.)

Though life is hard I come from a history of greatness, so I will be great. – Abram Wilson

The sunny vibes of Cuban trumpeter Yelfris Valdés were a perfect opening to an evening of jazz celebrating the Abram Wilson Foundation. The mood was celebratory, remembering Wilson, who passed away tragically young in June 2012, through his jubilant music and a focus on the great achievements of the foundation that he inspired. The quote above was like a recurrent theme running through the evening, which marked the fourth anniversary of his passing.

The quartet made up of Valdés (trumpet), Joe Downard (bass), Femi Koleoso (drums) and Joe Armon-Jones (piano) worked together seamlessly, interpreting Wilson’s music with great care. Along with the opening tune, Steak and Potatoes, they played music from The Philippa Project, a jazz-theatre production based on the life story of jazz pianist, journalist and child prodigy Philippa Schuyler. Born in 1930s Harlem as an experiment in miscegenation, the mixed-race Schuyler had an adventurous life. Abram Wilson was inspired to write music based on her story, and the project has now been taken over by director and writer Pia Furtado and music supervisor Pete Churchill. It currently consists of five scenes with musical interludes recounting moments from Schuyler’s life. Jazz is to the forefront – it is the music that tells the story. Wilson’s compositions encapsulate ‘the sound of surprise,’ perfectly suited to Schuyler’s astounding story. Some highlights of the set were the frantic trumpet melody of the radio station scene, the wistful Longing for Love, and the menacing drum and bass lines of The Cogdells.

Pianist Reuben James, the first patron of the Abram Wilson Foundation and someone who has been closely associated with its development, took to the stage with Downard and Koleoso for a performance that was full of spontaneity and creativity. It is easy to see how James' musical talent had famously impressed Abram Wilson so much (at the age of 17) that he was invited to join his band. Joined by Ruben Fox on tenor sax for the mournful tune Solitude, this was a more relaxed, playful and reflective part of the evening.

Kansas Smitty’s House Band ended the night on a high with an upbeat set of classics. Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams and From This Moment On featured fantastic solos from each member of the band: Pete Horsfall on trumpet, Ruben Fox on tenor saxophone, Joe Webb on piano and Dave Archer on guitar (as well as Joe Downard on bass and Femi Koleoso on drums, who played throughout the night, and deserve a special mention!). Things slowed down a little for Embraceable You, with Pete Horsfall in full crooner mode, before speeding right back up again for the final spectacular number.

The young musicians on stage have all benefited enormously from their association with the Foundation, and with Abram. All are clearly looking to the future, even while remembering and honouring the much-missed musician who inspires their work.

LINK: Tributes to Abram Wilson Four Years On 

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