REVIEW: Brian Jackson at the Jazz Café

Brian Jackson wth Yolanda Charles
Photo: Peter Jones

Brian Jackson
(Jazz Café, 11 September 2018. Review by Peter Jones)

In 2015, when Charenee Wade released Offering, her brilliant album-length tribute to the music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, it sent me back to the originals. Notable among these were Pieces of a Man (1971) and Winter in America (1974) – the latter often described, like so much of the duo’s output, as ‘prophetic’. But as Brian Jackson remarked at the Jazz Café, "We didn’t want it to be prophetic" – by which he meant they had no idea that so many of their dark warnings would come true in the way they now have.

Scott-Heron and Jackson were, of course, an essential element of the soundtrack of the 1970s – the black, radical, pissed-off, socially and racially aware element, along with the likes of Curtis Mayfield and – at times – Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. But Scott-Heron was first and foremost a poet, who in retrospect we can regard as visionary, highlighting issues that most people hadn’t begun to think about at the time. Brian Jackson was the musician who turned the poetry into memorable songs that have never sounded so fresh and relevant as they do today.

Here in London, the bespectacled Jackson, looking slim and fit in a natty pearl-grey jacket, was greeted with fervour by a knowledgeable, enthusiastic audience, who lapped up his reflections and observations between songs like true devotees. Alternating between Fender Rhodes (his signature sound) and grand piano, he was supported by a pair of Londoners – Yolanda Charles on electric bass and Chris Morris on drums.

They opened with the slow, sweet, meditative Offering, from the First Minute Of A New Day album, but it wasn’t long before Brian Jackson was introducing The Liberation Song from the same collection, and talking about the independence struggles in Mozambique and Angola which had inspired it. His linking narrative illuminated the material throughout the gig. There was a lot of talk about politics, but also plenty about the music. Their two greatest influences were Lady Day and John Coltrane, he said, before playing that urgent, uptempo classic.

Jackson’s voice is not as distinctive as Scott-Heron’s and at times, as on A Toast to the People, his vocal range was challenged. But it seemed to grow stronger as the night went on, energized no doubt by the crowd’s obvious love of the music and willingness to sing along at the slightest invitation. Charles and Morris were spot-on all night, Charles wearing a huge smile, as if she couldn’t quite believe she was sharing a stage with this legend, despite her stints with the likes of BB King and Eric Clapton. (She had the additional task of holding up the charts to show Jackson what was coming next, since he’d left his set-list in the dressing room.)

We waited almost until the end for him finally to pick up the flute that had been lying on top of the piano, playing a brief solo on In the Bottle, a song with barely more than two chords in it, reminding us that a great strength of this music is its harmonic simplicity, combined with terrific grooves and of course those thought-provoking lyrics.

"People say we were angry," commented Jackson as they returned for the encore, "Angry people, angry words. But really these songs are all about love, just not the kind of love that songs are usually about – they’re about love of family, people and nature." In illustration, they played the ballad Song For Bobby Smith, a four-year-old boy they had turned to in search of a title. "Make it about me," said Bobby. So they did.

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