REVIEW: Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra at Islington Assembly Hall (2016 EFG LJF)

Gondwana Orchestra with Matt Halsall (foreground left)
Photo credit: Patrick Hadfield 
Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra
(Islington Assembly Hall, 15 November 2016. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Patrick Hadfield)


The stage at Islington Assembly Hall was wreathed in smoke with dramatic lighting cutting through it, creating an atmosphere more usually associated with a rock band than a jazz festival; the audience was younger and more diverse than one often sees, and downstairs they were dancing – but the music was definitely jazz.

The Gondwana Orchestra played one number without their leader. Gavin Barras started an infectious bass riff before Taz Modi laid down some solid chords on the piano. Then Jordan Smart came in with an atmospheric, elegaic flute solo, behind which Amanda Whiting laid down some floating arpeggios on her harp.

Composer, producer and trumpeter Matthew Halsall came in stage for the second number. His clear trumpet playing in the mid register dominated, pushed along by the fast, pounding rhythm section. His solos were wistful and mournful, suitably moody on the smoky stage.Later on he muted his trumpet, playing another atmospheric solo as the rhythm section drove a tight groove, switching between time signatures. Halsall rarely spoke between numbers, his eyes hidden behind the peak of his cap.

The prominence of Modi's block chords, so reminiscent of McCoy Tyner's piano playing, together with Halsall's grooving, modal compositions, the prominence of tunes in 3/4, and Smart's tenor and soprano saxophone couldn't help bring to mind the work of John Coltrane's classic quartet - and if you're going to be compared to other musicians, being compared to the best is a good place to start. Whiting's harp, full of flowing, cascading notes, similarly couldn't help draw comparison to Alice Coltrane: the harp is a rare instrument in jazz, and Alice Coltrane one of it's pioneers. In the Gondwana Orchestra, the instrument was used to great effect, adding another layer of texture.

But there was a dance vibe in there too: Barras' bass and Luke Flowers' drums making the sometimes complex rhythms danceable. The overall effect was similar to Charles Lloyd's crossover band of the late sixties, particularly when Smart played flute. At other times they hit a noirish mood on a slow, atmospheric number that featured piano and harp, the gentle groove strangely menacing. The dance credentials came to the fore when the band were joined by singer Josephine Oniyama, a regular collaborator. This was superior soul jazz, Oniyana's vocals preeminent in the mix.

Dwight Trible. Photo credit: Patrick Hadfield

Halsall also brought on a special guest, vocalist Dwight Trible, with whom the band had just been recording. Trible sang a couple of pieces from his album Living Waters, including his homage to 'Trane, “back to one source”, John Coltrane. They closed the set with the Bacharach and David song What the World Needs Now Is Love - now more than ever, Halsall said. Trible has a powerful, rich voice, soaring on the choruses, warranting Halsall's description of him as "the best spiritual jazz vocalist". The enthusiastic crowd brought them back for an encore, first the title track from their last album, Into Forever with Oniyana on vocals, before being joined by Trible for Pharoah Sanders' Love Is Everywhere, a suitable close to the evening.

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield.

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