Preferring to paddle in the bluer side of the musical pool, the bubbling Jazz jacuzzi of this metaphor always intimidated me. An artificial aura of “cool” rippling out from its denizens. Although Lady Blackbird supported by DoomCannon hasn’t completely changed my mind on that front, they has pried open my reluctant eyes somewhat.
EFG London jazz festival produced by Serious (one of the UK’s biggest jazz producers) has been around in one form or another since its 1970s inception as the Camden Jazz Week. Originally spread across venues such as the Roundhouse and Bloomsbury theatre it has migrated south. Now settling in the Barbican, Royal Festival Hall, and bastion Ronnie Scott’s in Soho. Anyone who’s anyone in the capital dons a pair of shades, a black leather blazer and nods their head appreciatively in these dark spaces.
But enough lampooning of this wonderful art form. Serious has some serious (I’m not even sorry for that pun) work on its hands, championing this iconic black-originated art form, and proving that the UK is a contender in the mainly US-dominated world.
Hence the clever idea of having London-based composer DoomCannon and his incurably talented young male posse for the first act. Relaxed baggie jeans and hoodies are the rule of the day. Filled with musical ability and charming south London swagger, in between the blaring trumpets and muti-instrumental giggling riffs we are asked to turn our neighbour and repeat “I am peng, I am the spice”. My guest stared politely at my forehead in a very English manner, but this participation shatters the hush that predominated before this little stunt. A sing-along jazz interpretation of Pharrell Williams Beautiful nestles this act deep within my heart.
Hawking his debut album Renaissance this man’s clear genius with a cheeky sense of humour is a welcome first act before all of the much-ness that comes after. His is a loose, freeform version of the classic jazz repertoire, like sinking into an Egyptian cotton bedspread on holiday, composed of sound instead of touch. Dreamy yet sharp in points of surging intensity. A pleasing and tough act to follow.
But follow we will, from the famous jazz clubs of Los Angeles over soars our main act: Lady Blackbird (aka Marley Munroe). Dressed in a facekini (rare words for me to type) and dripping in crystal dew drops, I guess the aim is to look like a sexy cloud, but the effect is more ethereal jellyfish out on a Saturday night.
Vocally Lady Blackbird’s debut album Black Acid Soul is a track-by-track stunner, dosed in pain, soul, blues, and the most emotive form of jazz. Rightfully titling her the next superstar and a 5-star review from the Guardian’s Deron Johnson (former Miles Davis pianist and album collaborator no less!). I wholeheartedly agree that musically this petite but powerful woman knows her stuff, and deserves every accolade. Crafting an album akin to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black in its worth and cross-over-to-mainstream potential.
Her cover of Nina Simone’s 1966 civil rights anthem Blackbird echoes around the space, revibrating with the same fire it had when first released. Interestingly following on from Simone’s performance in this very hall in the late 90s. Relying on silence and Blackbird’s razor-sharp timing to hit its mark and boy does it keep hitting. We are clutched in her gloved hands, awaiting every groan, moan and note with breath that is jagged.
Five feet Tall has the soft moving cords of the jazz piano blending with soaring vocals. Her fluffy pompon ostrich-like headdress (she is a big hat fan) swaying lightly, she stands centre stage lapping up our adoration.
Ruler of My Heart is a more optimistic song, hoping for a future romance, again relying on the soft chords to highlight and underline the burning want in the music.
But a building highlight is closer to the end of the evening, It’s Not That Easy. Here Blackbird shows her pipes to the very best, gliding off in an instrumental break where the band fills the space with a padding set of solos. Back again she saunters on in another rather silly hat, a massive metal disk making her look like a cross between an ancient sphinx and a satellite disk. The hat stays on sadly throughout reflecting the stage lights, blinding us each individually as she crescendos up to an emotional peak. Impressive even if I lost a cornea in the process.
Finishing with a soulful slower rendition of I Am What I Am it is undoubted that Lady Blackbird is an idiosyncratic musical talent. Yet the parallels that are drawn throughout the night (and in the ephemera) to Grace Jones, or Tina turner are reductive and usher in confusion. The outfits feel at odds with her pulled-back stage demeanour. What Blackbird has is THE voice, which itself is so extraordinary it blows away the need for the frou-frou surrounding it. As Patti LuPone stated in Sondheim’s musical Company “does anyone still wear a hat? I’ll drink to that”
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