Live Music + Gig Reviews

Jazz Voice: Celebrating a Century of Song @ Barbican Hall, London

12 November 2010

Is it possible for a concert to be too perfect? It’s hard to say, but certainly Jazz Voice, the official opening event of the 18th London Jazz Festival, came perilously close.

Organised by Guy Barker – the third time that he has led the festival’s main vocal concert – it showed the human voice in all its glory as it featured nine guest soloists and the 41-strong London Jazz Festival Orchestra.

Barker decided to perform songs that were connected with years ending in 0. He imposed this restriction to stop the programme from escalating out of control, but also because it encouraged him and the audience to think about all of the connections that exist across the jazz world. In most cases it referred to the year in which the song was written, or the anniversary of the birth of the composer. On a few occasions, however, the link was more spurious, enabling the evening’s host Dougray Scott to have some fun in explaining the connection.

The real coup of the evening was to cram into the same concert nine soloists who are all at the top of their game in the fields of jazz, rock, soul or blues singing. At one end were the likes of Georgie Fame and Hamish Stuart with their good old-fashioned voices and style. These men knew how to put on a performance, and it was noticeable that Fame indicated the band both at the start and end of Always True To You In My Fashion.

No less adept at engaging an audience were Charlie Wood and Jacqui Dankworth who sang Frank Loesser‘s Baby It’s Cold Outside. The way in which they phrased the lines to create a back-and-forth conversation between “The Mouse”, who is trying to leave, and “The Wolf”, who is keen to persuade her to stay, demonstrated exceptionally rare skill.

One of the greatest revelations was hearing sixteen-year-old Nikki Yanofsky sing Hallelujah I Love Him So and Over The Rainbow. Her performance was aided by a sense of fresh, youthful exuberance, but judged specifically on her vocal output one would have assumed that she had twenty years more experience in the business. Noel McKay was in top form in his performances of Don’t Know Why I Love You and Cruisin’, and China Moses gave an exemplary rendition of Walk On By, her voice being quiet or assertive by turns. Paloma Faith‘s appearance was kept a secret until the moment she set foot on the stage, and decked out in a pink dress and even pinker gloves, she blew the audience away with At Last and Let’s Get Lost.

Gretchen Parlato‘s incredible performance of Butterfly made her voice sound like a synthesised instrument. In direct contrast, Alan Barnes almost turned the clarinet into a human voice as he took the solo for Artie Shaw‘s Clarinet Concerto, one of several pieces over the evening that featured no singers and allowed the band to shine. The second half began with an orchestral medley that included pieces by Herbie Hancock (born in 1940), Sonny Rollins and Kenny Wheeler (both 1930) and Charlie Parker (1920), while the evening’s final medley of Louis Prima numbers saw soloists and audience dancing alike.

Some concerts only become special because of the atmosphere that prevails on the night. Though this evening certainly saw a touch of magic in the air, that did not come about by chance. Guy Barker worked hard to secure exactly the right programme and singers, and to arrange the songs so that the specially created London Jazz Festival Orchestra could be shown at its best. One sensed that he knew he had a hit on his hands before he even mounted the podium, and he certainly wasn’t mistaken in that belief.

Jazz Voice will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Monday 15 November at 7pm.

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