Live Music + Gig Reviews

Goldie & Heritage Orchestra: Timeless (Sine Tempore) @ Royal Festival Hall / John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (Re-envisioned) @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

21-22 June 2014


Goldie Perhaps James Lavelle’s Meltdown has been an occasion where the word ‘curated’ really can apply, given how much the line-up for its closing weekend felt like some sort of museum-piece – a timely reminder of the pervasive and inescapable nature of legacy and influence.

In fact, in placing an orchestral performance of Goldie’s Timeless next to a broad-minded reimagining of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Lavelle has made a cogent and powerful argument. Some key contemporary works in relatively new forms (albeit made nearly 20 years ago) really can stand tall with pieces from an established canon (few would argue against Coltrane’s place in the jazz pantheon).

Whilst Goldie played little active role in the fascinating resurrection of Timeless, his presence was crucial in the overall success of the event. He could hardly have been expected to play the docile role of composer, admiring proceedings from the anonymity his seat at the back of the front stalls. Instead, he rushed the stage with increasing frequency, dancing and encouraging (or perhaps distracting?) the musicians and goading the crowd in brilliantly irreverent fashion. What could have been a somewhat stuffy exercise was in fact as vibrant and exuberant a concert as the Royal Festival Hall as ever staged, eliciting joy and celebration from an elated crowd.

With string and horn sections, a mini choir and a central rhythm section, The Heritage Orchestra had more than ample range in sound and texture to bring Goldie’s expansive vision of drum and bass to cinematic life. Much of the crucial work in transcription and arrangement here had been done by Matt Calvert (Three Trapped Tigers, Strobes), a guitarist and electronics expert and his quiet but noticeably engaged presence helped anchor the ensemble as much as Jules Buckley’s experience and poise as conductor. Indeed, his lush, enveloping chords provided the first wisps of atmosphere and suggestion in the opening Sea Of Tears.

Two markedly contrasting drummers – the nuanced and expressive Jon Blease alongside the intense and riveting Adam Betts – delivered the intricate lattice grooves that do not simply underpin these compositions, but sometimes justifiably come to dominate them. It was hard to find a beat out of place in a performance organised with military precision but delivered with as much energy as accuracy. As Goldie suggested in his introduction, this ensemble was comprised of musicians who had grown up with the impact of Timeless and other club crossover successes.

Especially given Goldie’s transition to minor celebrity, it’s easy to feel that drum and bass was a musical moment that has since subsided. Yet this music here felt every bit as rich and alive as it did in 1995. Perhaps that is because there was always more here than the more minimal template of jungle – Goldie and 4Hero employed soulful melodies and rich, layered harmonies and textures. This is particularly the case on a beautifully layered and entrancing State Of Mind, and on the familiar melodic shapes of Angel and Inner City Life.

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Some with specific and limited views on jazz history might flinch at the idea of a group of British jazz musicians exploring the legacy of John Coltrane’s pivotal work A Love Supreme, yet this really was an ensemble showcasing the top tier of our improvising talent. Many of the players had links with the Jazz Warriors collective, and all played with sensitivity and spontaneity during an often intense and compelling reworking of some exalted source material.

Initially organised by Paul Bradshaw, former editor of Straight No Chaser magazine, this event celebrated a spiritual and intuitive approach to improvisation as much as it did Coltrane’s work specifically. Bradshaw emphasised the influence of Alice Coltrane when introducing harpist Tori Handley as part of an introductory set (labelled ‘Deep Vibes‘) that focused on small group improvisation.

Byron Wallen opened proceedings with a fanfare on Tibetan horn, just one of many surprising and thrilling moments. Wallen then switched to his more familiar trumpet and played a darting and delightful duo piece with the resolute, brilliantly consistent bassist Neil Charles. The ensemble gradually expanded to include Tori Handley, Orphy Robinson on xylosynth (an impressive instrument with convincing reproductions of various tuned percussion sounds), the radical Pat Thomas on keyboards, Rowland Sutherland on flutes and Rachel Musson saxophones. The meditative music, often based on repetitive, hypnotic grooves, was very much in keeping with the spiritual jazz tradition.

The second set brought Rowland Sutherland’s ‘re-envisioning’ of A Love Supreme, which kept fragments of John Coltrane’s themes as well as the original’s narrative sweep and wide variation in dynamics and intensity. The addition of a range of Indian instruments (played by Ansuman Biswas), Tunde Jegede’s kora and a trio of Bata drummers proved effective, creating a global, open approach that Coltrane himself may well have appreciated. The intitial sweeps, delicate plucks and chants set a reflective, devotional mood.

Yet the focal point here came in how this exceptional ensemble found their own route through the material. The dazzling rhythm section of Nikki Yeoh on piano, Mark Mondesir on drums and Neil Charles on bass brought the spirit of Coltrane – with more than a hint of the pervading influence of Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner particularly. Emerging from the opening string textures and chanting was a simmering, urgent 12/8 groove. Saxophonist Steve Williamson took a searing, powerful solo and it was great to see some near symbiotic interaction between Yeoh and Mondesir during a swinging piano solo. Mondesir in fact proved to be a restless, highly active driving force for much of the performance, and this swinging rhythm section crackled and snapped in a way that belied many of the negative stereotypes about British jazz. Watching the perplexed and astounded faces of the three Bata drummers as they observed Mondesir provided one of the evening’s true delights.

Other memorable moments included a wild and brilliant vocal improvisation from Cleveland Watkiss and a powerful, articulate solo on bass clarinet from Shabaka Hutchings. The only arguable misjudgement was in the heavy reliance on words, from the emphasis on love at the outset to the concluding words in praise of God (albeit a very broad minded conception of that entity). Whilst this was taken from Coltrane’s own poetry and it is of course fine in context of the spiritual and devotional nature of Coltrane’s music and approach – it’s just not certain that this ensemble needed the spoken language to get this message across. In fact, the long recitation at the end did serve to dissipate some of the spiritual energy in the music.

If there is a conclusion to draw from these fine concluding days of an intriguing and varied festival, it is that revisiting legacies can prove fruitful, not least so that audiences do not start to take such statements for granted. Not only that, but new approaches to classic recorded music can yield fresh inspirations and new directions, as well as elicit highly personal contributions. Sometimes you really do have to look back in order to move forwards.


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Goldie & Heritage Orchestra: Timeless (Sine Tempore) @ Royal Festival Hall / John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (Re-envisioned) @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London