This is the fifth year running that the London Jazz Festival has officially opened with a vocal concert organised by British trumpeter, composer and conductor, Guy Barker. It is also the fifth successive time that he has connected all of the songs performed to years ending in (in this instance) two, and ultimately the fifth time in a row that the resulting concert has really come up trumps.
Barker’s motto for compiling such brilliant evenings would seem to be ‘plan, plan and plan a long time in advance’. Only in that way could he have got into the same concert hall on the same night nine soloists who are all at the height of their game in the fields of jazz, rock, pop and soul singing. It must also have taken considerable time to arrange all of the pieces for the 41-strong London Jazz Festival Orchestra, but on this singularly dazzling evening all of the hard work certainly paid off. The vocal performances ranged from the very good to the truly exceptional, and, with each soloist singing twice, almost everyone saw at least one of their numbers fall into the latter category. Brendan Reilly ensured that the atmosphere was charged from the off as he got the audience clapping along to the very first number, Billie Holiday‘s I’m Gonna Lock My Heart, his voice possessing a rounded, yet sensitive, quality that belied the extent of the range it effortlessly covered. Juliet Roberts put in a brilliant performance of Do Right Woman before topping even this in the second half with Cream‘s Sunshine of your Love, her powerful voice possessing spirit and just the right level of attitude.
23-year-old Natalie Duncan performed her own song, the impressive Devil in Me, which featured some incredible orchestral moments, especially from the wind and strings. In both this and Gimme Shelter, she demonstrated exceptional vocal control, and provided a model lesson in how to keep the voice passionate in the upper register without ever sounding piercing. Claire Martin made her performance of Thomas Dolby‘s Keys to my Ferrari look casual and natural precisely by delivering throughout on the highly tricky rhythms. Junior Giscombe in both You Don’t Know and Mama Used to Say was strong, smooth and soulful, and mesmerised the audience with his rhythm and presence. Gwyneth Herbert gave an edgy and effective performance of Dead End Street, The Kinks being fifty years old in 2012. This featured an unusually dark, yet appropriate, arrangement of the introduction by Barker, and occasional gnashing and wailing from the mouths of the orchestra’s members. Imelda May, for whom this was her first public performance since her daughter was born in August, delivered magnificently with Revival Day and Meet You at the Moon.
The audience went wild when Boy George was announced as the mystery guest. Only last April he was performing with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, and his rendition of Always on My Mind, which Elvis Presley recorded in 1972 and Willie Nelson in 1982, demonstrated impeccable phrasing. The singing star of the evening, however, was Patti Austin who not only put in two stunning vocal performances, but connected with the audience on every level. In You Gotta Be it really felt as she was delivering a lesson in life, while we could feel every ounce of her sincerity as she gave the invitation to Lean on Me. That she dedicated the song to all of her friends on the East Coast, still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, made it especially poignant. As is now the custom, Barker created a medley of pieces from composers associated with years ending in two – namely Gil Evans (born 1912), Thelonious Monk (died 1982), Oliver Nelson (born 1932) and Charlie Mingus Jr (born 1922) – and the orchestra brought to the fore all of the intelligence he had shown in arranging the music. The concert finished in suitable style with all nine singers participating in an Aretha Franklin medley (she is 70 this year) that saw the audience rising to their feet for Say A Little Prayer and Respect.
A fantastic night of music let down only slightly by compere John Sessions, who did not have one of his better nights. Several jokes fell flat, and at one point he apologised for a quip that he sensed had caused offence. The problem, however, was not the standard of the gags, but the very fact that they were being uttered. In this setting, introductions can be amusing but they must be kept informative and short, because making each an act in its own right puts a severe check on the overall pace built up by the music. This point should be noted for next year, as it alone prevented this concert from ranking amongst the very highest.