Monday, September 18, 2006

Kinching Victory

I had the pleasure of attending two superb gigs last week, although the contrast between the two could hardly be more striking.

First off was the launch gig for rising UK jazz star Soweto Kinch's second album 'A Life In The Day Of B19: Tales of the Towerblock'. If that title sounds a little convoluted, it's not all that surprising given the nature of the project. This is Kinch's grand attempt at a concept album, drawing together a variety of styles and approaches. If the Coltrane-influenced fiery blowing will satisfy those who admire his intense, energetic approach to jazz, the increased emphasis on his equally dexterous rapping may well serve to broaden his audience. There's real musicality on display here for those disillusioned with hip hop's dependance on programming and rehashed samples, whilst the humorous wordplay may draw in those who normally find jazz lofty and inaccessible.

The B19 of the album's title is a Birmingham postal code, and Kinch's main objective seems to be to produce a thematically coherent long work, full of rounded characters and fictional events. Essentially, this is as much the witty observational tradition of English pop songwriting as it is a rap record. It's possible to argue that the medium of rap simply allows Kinch to express these ideas more easily and literally than an instrumental collection would - but in combining rap and jazz so comfortably, he has created his own unique space in the current musical landscape. The album takes in all the humdrum mundanities of tower block life, as well as the obvious harships, but Kinch has for the most part deftly avoided stereotyping. There's no sign of any ASBOS this evening anyway.

The tragically romantic is captured neatly in the deceptively simple, wistful melody to 'Adrian's Theme', whilst there's perceptive self-awareness elsewhere. Kinch decries hip hop's slavish materialism in the ironic 'All About The M-O-N-E-E' which inevitably involves some amusing crowd participation. More amusing still is the 'Everybody Raps', in which Kinch gets aggressive, ranting at the ubiquity of hip hop in a fiery style reminiscent of hip hop. It matches the intensity of his ferocious sax playing.

There's very little dynamic contrast in the music, but there's plenty of structural complexities (sudden shifts in tempo and style, from straight ahead hip hop grooves into driving swing) that make for an unpredictable, exciting performance. Occasionally the cross-pollenation of genres doesn't quite work, as when the otherwise excellent 'Adrian's Theme' veers into a strange mock-baroque section. The band is superb throughout, Abram Wilson displaying masterful control of his trumpet's upper register and playing with passion and vigour throughout. The rhythm section is solid and mostly unobtrusive, but Kinch frequently allows them to expand on the groove templates. When they do, the results are thrilling. It all culminates in an impromptu freestyle with guests Jonzi D and Lyric L, during which the bizarre blind musician Raoul Midon (who plays trumpet without the instrument - quite extraordinary) makes an unnanounced guest appearance. Kinch clearly had no idea who he was, but seemed more than happy to let him invade the stage - and if the after-show chatter between the two is anything to go by, we might look forward to a collaboration soon. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to the album's September 25th release. Kinch and Abram Wilson return to London with a special joint show as part of the London Jazz Festival in November.

Then on Sunday it was over to my former local The King's Head in Crouch End to catch a really quite splendid show featuring Jeremy Warmsley and Piney Gir's Country Roadshow.
Little Sparta opened proceedings with some rather tedious strummy acoustic songs that ventured nowhere in particular in lazy fashion. The last track they played was a delightfully melodic, breezy pop gem - the others stubbornly refused to linger in the mind. Apparently they were without the performance poet with whom they've been collaborating - it's difficult to judge whether or not his presence would have made an improvement.

Piney Gir, by contrast, is tremendous fun. Her band have a natural feel for the country stylings she now brings to her songs (a number of them reworked from her electropop debut album). Vocally, she is at times a little shaky and off-key, but there's so much vitality and personality here that any shortcomings don't really matter too much. I enjoyed this spirited and entertaining set. The closing 'Greetings, Salutations, Goodbye' is a particular treat.

"Please can you tell that heckler to shut the f*ck up!" This is the sound of a rather agitated Jeremy Warmsley, during a gig at the Brixton Windmill a couple of years back. Tonight in the King's Head, now a somewhat intimate venue for him, he is amiably ruminating on the pitfalls of being a solo artist (sometimes you have no-one to eat with before the show), admiring his piano, joking with a slightly tipsy Piney Gir ("that's a very strange noise...I like it though") and, bless him, dedicating a song to me (apparently I'm 'Crouch End's answer to Lester Bangs', which makes a change from 'Crouch End's most eligible bachelor' I guess). That Jeremy has always been a guitar player and songwriter of real talent, also adept at finding unusual contexts and means of escaping troubadour pigeonholing, has never been in doubt. His ability to captivate a live audience has, in the past, been more questionable. The transition could hardly be more marked. Where once he seemed aloof, serious-minded, perhaps even self-important, he now seems confident, relaxed and in command of his material.

Along with the onstage persona has come a real development in musicality and control. His voice has always been distinctive but has previously tended towards the untamed. He now exercises more restraint, varying tone and volume to real impact. This is immediately apparent from the opening '5 Verses'. In an acoustic setting, it's more stark than its poppier recorded counterpart, and perhaps all the more effective for that. Jeremy now adds new contours to his already elaborate melody. Another song to benefit from the solo arrangement is 'If I Had Only', where the perceptive, self-questioning lyrics shine through, whereas they are a little murky on the more ponderous recorded version. Where other solo artists are content simply to recreate the recorded environments of their songs onstage, tonight Jeremy breathes new life into these songs. Clearly, in his hands, a song is never finished.

Switching between acoustic guitar and piano throughout, Jeremy seems to have wisely ditched the preoccupation with guitar loops that used to dominate his solo sets. I always found this to be only superficially interesting, and something that occasionally detracted from the quality of his songs. Now songs like 'Dirty Blue Jeans' and 'Modern Children' benefit from some intricate guitar playing (it's rarely ever just a case of strum and sing here) and a stronger focus on the contrast between agression and sensitivity in the vocal performance. The piano playing is equally adventurous, and tonight's intense but warm rendition of 'I Knew That Her Face Was A Lie' is a real highlight.

That Jeremy gets such a warm reception is testament not just to the genuine buzz building around him, but also to his newfound ability to engage with his audience. This augurs tremendously well for the future - he will surely get better and better. Whilst lazy comparisons suggesting he is 'the new Leonard Cohen' might be a little wide of the mark, it looks likely that Jeremy will now cement his reputation and perhaps even achieve longevity. There may only be one Leonard Cohen, but it's more than plausible that a few years down the line from now, people will be calling someone else 'the new Jeremy Warmsley'.

Jeremy plays again in London with a full band at an all ages show at Conway Hall on 30th September.

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