Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 7: Jacob Collier and Friends @ Royal Albert Hall, London

19 July 2018

BBC Proms

(Photo: Mark Allan

Jacob Collier was very very excited (as he repeatedly told us) to be offered his own Prom in the Royal Albert Hall. His puppy-dog enthusiasm is, by turns, infectious and annoying, but the music produced by this 23-year-old, two-Grammy-holding, autodidactic online viral sensation is good. Sometimes very good. It has a boundless enthusiasm to it – a meld of jazz funk, West-Coast upbeat optimism, Latin and elements from many other cultures. The self-written numbers presented were multi-styled, and his harmonic treatments of covers of classics such as Stevie Wonder’s As and You and I or Sting’s Every Little Thing were deliciously scrunchy; his guests (the folk artist Sam Amidon, the multi-genre singer Becca Stevens, the gospel a-cappella group Take 6, and the Moroccan Gnawa mâalem Hamid El Kasri) added further variety to what should have been a perfect summer gig.

Alas, Collier should have curbed his enthusiasm for the venue. The Albert Hall, whose reverb is tricky at the best of times, becomes an acoustic nightmare once amplification is applied, and it weaved its malign spell on Thursday, such that lyrics accompanied by anything more than piano or light strings were lost (notwithstanding that the piano itself acquired a dull, thumping quality through amplification). The first, artfully multi-tracked, vocals of the opening Don’t You Know were audible, but once the chunky brass and percussion joined in for this splendidly pyrotechnic, multi-sectioned number, all hope of text was lost, and Collier was left yelling incomprehensibly into his microphone. Doubtless, once the BBC engineers have woven a counter-spell and adjusted the balance, those watching or listening to the broadcasts will have a more rewarding experience.

Jacob Collier

Jacob Collier
(Photo: Mark Allan)

A few good things could be picked out of a bad job, though. The quieter numbers were spellbinding: Sam Amidon’s banjo-accompanied Pat Do This, Pat Do That was given a charming makeover through the addition of a warm counter-melody from the strings and a few riffs from the piano; the duet Ocean Wide, Canyon Deep came across well, the melody enhanced by a minimal bass, shimmering strings and tubular bells. The Scottish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme allowed Collier’s, Amidon’s and Stevens’ voices to shine above a whisper of guitar (and the vast full-orchestra swell in the last chorus was a magical moment). The best of the quiet numbers was Collier’s own Once You, a delicate, Hollywood waltz, introduced on a small electric piano, that blossomed into some scrunchy modulations in the brass. Hideaway brought to mind a combination of Julia Fordham and Art Garfunkel, and showcased the pleasing husky quality of Collier’s voice in its mid range; he perhaps needs a little work on his transitions to head-voice and falsetto, though.

The only thing to do with the louder numbers was to sit back and enjoy Collier’s genius with harmonic manipulation, and the generous and brilliant orchestrations written (and conducted) by Jules Buckley and brought to lush fruition by Metropole Orkest: Djesse’s swirling strings, brass squirts and Happy-Talk rhythm; the up-beat trumpet-boopiness of Hajanga. Of the busy numbers the two featuring Hamid El Kasri and his singers/players were the most instantly, foot-tappingly appealing; Moulay Ahmed was a particularly effective mix of Western brass and Gnawa krakebs and gimbri. Take 6 were shockingly underused in As (supplying little more than a few ‘ooos’), but gave us some sensitive close harmony work in You and I.

Sadly, the formal closing number – Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long – while featuring everyone, lost more than it gained in its over-worked arrangement. There’s a sparseness to the rhythm in the original, and the dense writing filled far too many gaps.

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Prom 7: Jacob Collier and Friends @ Royal Albert Hall, London