James Taylor Quartet Big Band cool as cats at QEH

There cannot be many musicians who live within a stone’s throw of a great cathedral, where not only can they partake of worship, but also have the opportunity to sing with its choir. One such lucky person is James Taylor, Hammond organist of the James Taylor Quartet, aka JTQ. If having Rochester Cathedral on his doorstep is not enough to inspire grand musings then imagine being on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 24 March, flanked by the cathedral choir led by Scott Farrell and a 14 strong horn section from the Royal Academy of Music, is surely a blessing.


JTQ – consisting of Taylor on organ, Pat Illingworth on drums, Andrew McKinney on bass and Mark Cox on guitar – have been proponents of the jazz-funk and Acid Jazz scenes since the mid-1980s. Billed as 'From the Cat to the Moon' the concert featured material mainly from JTQ's latest album Closer To The Moon and songs from the Jimmy Smith album, The Cat. The Jimmy Smith influence is obvious but it's also clear that the lush Lalo Schifrin big band arrangements from The Cat are the main inspiration behind the large line-up.

The quartet got cooking from the get-go, churning out a funky stew of solid bass from McKinney and the tight punctuated drums of Illingworth, with added spice from Cox's guitar. Taylor's organ bubbled and brewed leaving no doubt to the excited audience that the evening would see them well served and that the JTQ have lost none of their original steam or flavour.

Further into the set, each section of this extended ensemble are put through their paces on ‘Spencer Takes a Trip’.  Each show their credentials as a tightly woven interplay between choir and horn section unfurl. The Quartet also shows their metal in keeping the whole thing together, and as if to check the pulse of this behemoth, percussionist Ralph Wyld wields his mallet on the tubular bells sounding like a grandfather clock chiming out the hour which elicits some screeching high motifs from Taylor's Hammond adding to the drama. The choir definitely deserved their chance to sit and rest after that number.

Songs such as ‘Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and ‘Theme from the Carpetbaggers’ also benefitted from the extended ensemble. Adding to the tonal palette and change of mood Yvonne Yanney took the stage and deliver a rendition of ‘Love TKO’, made famous by Teddy Pendergrass in the 1980's. Yanney’s velvet tone showed how the arrangement of swirling vibrato-rich Hammond and subtle horns with harmon muted trumpet could draw out depth and emotion equal to the countless versions of this classic song. Her performance on other songs also brought a little razzmatazz at the right moment, but as if to regain some limelight Taylor, at one point and with grand gesture, unveils the QEH pipe organ then sits at the controls like a helmsman, steering the choir through a song with great epic style.

– Roger Thomas (Story and Photos)


The Necks bring interstellar improv to Bishopsgate

Part of the ‘City Sessions’ programmed by the Vortex that bring creative music to the heart of London’s financial district, this gig comes with layers of irony. The venue is a stone’s throw from where international traders turn over monopoly money on a daily basis. They might not see The Necks as a safe commercial investment. Yet the room was packed solid.

Put simply, the Australians have a following, and it has been built over some three decades of recording, touring and developing a musical vocabulary that consolidates a substantial fan base, even though their long-form pieces would not suit daytime radio play lists that merchant bankers presumably tune into when they need a quick adrenalin rush.

Speed is not the key variable here, though. The whole point is time and space, or rather the ability of pianist Chris Abrahams, double bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck to alter perceptions thereof. Each set of roughly 45 minutes appears to go by with relative briskness, although tempos steer clear of frantic allegro. Control and precision define each tangential ‘chapter’ of the extended improvisation, which is anchored in a kind of gradual, incremental development whereby phrases re-harmonise or acquire a new rhythmic direction without clearly telegraphed intentions. Repetition conceals transition.

Gently rolling figures from Abrahams’ keyboard bathe in the swirl of Buck’s cymbals while Swanton often slides between Spanish flamenco strum and Indian tanpura drone to boldly emphasise the raga implications of much of the performance, though just occasionally his fretted notes are swallowed up by the sparkly dulcimer-like reverberations of Abrahams’ left hand. Maybe the point is that the low end is to be felt, not always heard. There is more than one moment when the players reach an impasse and the building dynamism halts, but the nudge forward arrives with admirable subtlety. Buck might do nothing more than alternate four and five phrases on the tom, and the judder reinforces the shifting weight of Swanton’s bulky open notes. Sound quality, sharp and substantial, counts as much as ‘chops’.

If the first set grooves the second is more ambient-like, the bass assuming a greater melodic role among washes of percussion and piano, making the point that the group has scope within its distinctive modus operandi. Drawing the line from Asian music to serial composers, The Necks purvey a stealthy trance that feels as electric as it does acoustic, with an underlying aesthetic that is jazz rather than jazzy. They are more a one-off band than another piano trio.

– Kevin Le Gendre


Marlene Verplanck charms at The Crazy Coqs

Way back, Pizza on the Park was the go-to place for sophisticated jazz and cabaret. Not anymore. It’s long gone. Now, Crazy Coqs, set deep below Piccadilly and furnished in the kind of Art Deco style that makes you think the Great Gatsby (or possibly Leonardo Di Caprio himself) could walk in any minute, has become the new haven for classy performers who relish its close-to ambience. And for punters who think the same.

The diminutive songstress Marlene Verplanck was always at home in Pizza on the Park and has built a UK fan-base through her continuing visits here; this week she’s making her debut at Crazy Coqs (she's there through to Saturday 22 March). Happily for those who know her work, her mix of Great American Songbook swingers and plaintive paeans to unrequited love remains both beguiling and yes, life-enhancing. She stands still, is never histrionic, and picks unhackneyed songs by great composers, concentrating on letting the lyrics do their work, telling stories, and allowing us to relish their value. And all with a smile on her face.

Marlene has always been noted for her clarity, her vocal warmth and her ability to top and tail a song with a telling burst of scat or a sustained high note. These abilities continue as do her unerring taste and innate sense of dynamics and pacing. For all this to happen as cleverly as it did on this, her opening night, her accompanists needed to be alert and suitably adroit. She has charts for everything and John Pearce at the piano read them brilliantly, soloing with panache as Paul Morgan, increasingly Churchillian in aspect and steadfast in support, laid down a firm bass line. Just to hear Marlene sing a song like ‘The Party Upstairs’ with its sense of momentary exclusion or ‘I Keep Going Back to Joes’, a forlorn yearning for a lost love is an experience to be savoured. She may be the last of her kind, a veteran now with a pedigree that goes back to the days of touring big bands, but she loves these songs, sings them with pin-sharp intonation and above all with feeling. Get down to the Crazy Coqs while you can.

– Peter Vacher


Zara McFarlane bittersweet and beautiful at XOYO

Invigoration of tradition by means subtle rather than radical was the guiding principle of this performance by an artist of rapidly growing stature. Thirty year-old east London vocalist Zara McFarlane makes no secret of her admiration for the likes of Ella, Sarah and Nina but she has found a way of skillfully extending their legacies, deploying a poised but potent acoustic quartet – anchored by the drums and bass twin engine of Moses Boyd and Max Luthert and buoyed by Peter Edwards’ keys and Binker Golding’s tenor sax – to blend jazz and soul with understated African rhythms and non-western timbres.

While the reprise of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police And Thieves’, with its inventive adaptation of the original roots reggae pulse to lithe, wistful swing, drew the most audible bout of youtube recognition, something of a rarity at a jazz gig, it was the introduction of Manu Delago’s hang to the ensemble that brought a cathedral-like silence of admiration. Tonally, the instrument very loosely recalls the steel pan but Delago elicited an array of spindly, high pitches and damp, woody thuds to create the illusion of a bongo and marimba being played simultaneously. This provided a stunning backdrop for the delicacy of McFarlane’s voice on a spirited version of Simone’s ‘Plain Gold Ring’, but if the singer impressed with the absolute control of both her upper range and focused shifts of tempo, she had the audience swooning when she plunged to the bluesy low tones on the chorus of ‘You’ll Get Me In Trouble’.

Technical excellence aside, McFarlane greatly engaged as a storyteller and lyric writer, falling somewhere between the sharp observational prowess of Carmen Lundy and the hard-edged reality tales of Abbey Lincoln. The amusingly wry ‘old partner new squeeze’ dilemma ‘Better Than Mine’ brought many nods of empathy while ‘Woman In The Olive Groves’, a sobering meditation on the desolate life of a black prostitute in Italy made the point that McFarlane will not refrain from subject matter that the mainstream shirks. Which is why her emergence is necessary.

– Kevin Le Gendre


Christine Tobin kisses Cohen at Ronnie Scott’s

Green-hatted blarney is blessedly absent from Ronnie Scott’s on St. Patrick’s Day. Instead, Ireland’s Christine Tobin is launching her gorgeous new album of Leonard Cohen songs, A Thousand Kisses Deep. With her full quartet and guest trumpeter Nick Smart, she further explores the chiselled profundities and sly enigmas of this bone-deep bohemian singer-songwriter, who suits and enriches the jazz songbook.

Where Barb Jungr’s current album and show Hard Rain look to Cohen (and Dylan) for politics and philosophy in unjust times, Tobin finds the melancholy, deeply romantic torrents, which flood 'Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye', or the Lorca-inspired 'Take This Waltz'. There’s a feeling of heightened emotion in Ronnie’s intimacy, an atmosphere of love and sorrow from looking at and listening to her as she sways and gives her all to these songs. A lot of vows would be renewed if this was Valentine’s Day, and quick; because in Cohen’s love songs, a funeral’s never far away.

Tobin’s range swoops low and crests high. Most importantly, she feels all the pain and humour in words, which are crafted to such finely weighted points, you hardly feel the blades sink in. She brings Cohen’s emotions fully to the surface, as if suffering them herself. The Biblical Story of Isaac unfolds with grisly, horror film clarity, Phil Robson’s electric guitar adding harsh squalls to its anger at religious extremism. Double-bassist Dave Whitford and percussionist Adriano Adewale play an extended intro each, and Smart gives a Miles-style fanfare to 'Dance Me To The End Of Love'. But improvisation and Tobin’s scat are in efficient service to the songs, letting the album versions breathe a touch more, but never forgetting the words.

Tobin’s long-time collaborator Huw Warren’s accordion is at the heart of many arrangements, sounding exotic and clipped, and refashioning 'Suzanne' as a zydeco barnstormer. He’s Tobin’s sole accompanist on piano for Anthem, which Cohen took 10 years to write, and is a slow ache of healing wisdom here. “They’ve summoned up a thundercloud, and they’re gonna hear from me,” the lyrics also threaten, in a fury at the wars leaders unleash made greater by Cohen’s conviction that this won’t ever change.

Though Tobin isn’t as centrally motivated by such wider injustices as Jungr, she misses nothing here, or in 'Everybody Knows' apocalyptic, hilarious panorama of disgrace. She adds a couple of her own songs - more rock-oriented, and inevitably lesser lyrically, though not out of place. But it’s the gently heart-rending encore of Billie Holiday’s 'God Bless the Child', which seals a warmly humane night.

– Nick Hasted


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