Initially, at the very least, I’m going to make this personal. I don’t usually. As a rule, I like the third person. I’m going to break this rule because, for a review of a jazz gig, it feels appropriate to turn the lights down low and make it more of an intimate affair.
On that note, I’ll introduce myself. My name is Greg. I was christened ‘Gregory’ though, and I’ve never been a fan of my full name. I could live with ‘Greg’, but ‘Gregory’? Pah, get out of here. It’s always sounded so old hat. From a young age, I realised that I didn’t want to be laughed out of the room and I don’t think there are many Gregs who feel comfortable in the ‘(gl)ory’ of their full name.
For example, surely Greg Norman wouldn’t be messing around with chainsaws if he was Gregory Norman, would he? He’d be more likely pruning bushes and hedgerows with a modest pair of hand shears. There’s a lot to be said for a name.
‘Why are you telling me this?’, I hear you ask (and somewhat impatiently too, may I add).
Well, clad in a silver jacket and with his trademark woolly hat in place, jazz crooner Gregory Porter evokes a coolness that belies any of my irrational concerns about our shared appellation. Comfortable, graceful and self-effacing, he oozes charm and insouciance.
Sat up in the higher tier with a bird’s eye view of proceedings, the first thing to strike me is the immediate surrender from the audience. Within the first 3 minutes, they are warmed up and clapping effusively. I haven’t quite witnessed such an immediate abandon from an audience at one of these iTunes gigs before. Maybe it is the familiar, comely sounds of the gentle jazz. In any event, encouraged by this affection, Porter thrives.
His band are dotted about the stage in a seemingly haphazard fashion, working their space with dogged determination and wilful virtuosity. Whilst the drums skitter with gentle brushes stroking the snare and hi-hats, the double bassist slinks and glides his fingers up and down the fretboard in what is a simultaneously contradictory and also complimentary manner. Out front, the tenor saxophone and piano take turns to voyage off into solo territory; playing games with the scales and pushing the limits of any modulation with their nimble dexterity and impressive velocity.
It’s at this point that I should probably say that jazz with vocals has never been the easiest sell for me. It’s party music, yes, but not of the memorable ‘let’s have it’ gatherings of your teenage years. It’s dinner party music of the sedate later years, where people talk about their jobs, their plans to alter the house and how many miles their latest motor vehicle does to the gallon. It is a party where there will be at least one vegan and two vastly conflicting political opinions. It is one where food will be nervously pushed around the plate at some point after a guest makes an ill-judged blue joke and leaves an uncomfortable silence in the air.
Despite these prejudices that I have, the atmosphere is intoxicating enough to win me over. In a live setting, his voice is a reassuring whisper in the ear, an arm around the shoulder and the chink of a couple of shot glasses (on the rocks, of course). Somehow, Porter manages to shrink the space of the Roundhouse into what could be a tiny little venue off the beaten track in some whiskey and moonshine settlement.
Laura Mvula is brought out for the touching ‘Water Under Bridges’. A song about a relationship that has decayed and died, it is potent material and delivered with impassioned sincerity as a duet. However, it’s hard to take the water-and-bridge analogy without thinking of Simon & Garfunkel’s classic ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. It’s a bit like getting a lyric about a grapevine and talking about how you heard something about it but not through it. I hope you see my point. It doesn’t quite work, does it?
That aside, the songs come and go with a pleasing momentum. The upbeat ‘Liquid Spirit’ gets the venue pumping like the most fervently received sermon by a consummate pastor. ‘Hey Laura’ is greeted by whoops and screams and the punchy ‘Musical Genocide’ is preceded by a sound bite from Porter saying that we are likely to agree with what he disagrees with in the next number.
If there is criticism to be levied, then it must rest with the fact that for any naysayers to the genre of jazz, this is a gig guilty of one of its most common tropes ie. constant extensions into indulgent soloing. For the acolytes of such things (like myself), on the other hand, this was gladly welcome.
Seeing as I’m at the end of my review and I maintained the personal slant, I’ll say this much; l was glad for my seat. It was a perfect gig to sit back, relax and allow the squeaks and squawks, gently rattling drums and piano tinkles wash over you.
Just to sit there and let it all soak in was a lovely privilege. I’m not going to have a go for the lack of ferocious rocking out. After all, you don’t buy a toaster and criticise it because it can’t make you tea.
We got what we came for and it didn’t disappoint.
By Gregory Wetherall
Photo courtesy of iTunes Festival, London 2014.
The iTunes Festival continues throughout the month of September. Stay tunedto SupaJam for all the reviews and news for the remainder of the event.