Courtney Pine & Zoe Rahman
St. George’s Church, Brighton
Saturday 14th March 2015
An enormous Yamaha piano glints in the shaft of light from a stained-glass window and a single spotlight picks out mosaic tiles on the floor. There is an expectant hush but also a contained excitement. The atmosphere of a church tends to add an otherworldliness to the understated glamour of jazz, as acts as diverse as the Gwilym Simcock Trio and Claire Martin and the Montpellier Cello Quartet can testify. Tonight is no exception as Courtney Pine performs the third date of his tour of latest album Song (The Ballad Book) with fellow MOBO Award winner and Mercury nominee Zoe Rahman.
Pine was first discovered at the age of 20 and has become one of the most commercially successful international jazz artists around, equally at home in mainstream pop and world music, just as capable of holding the attention of an audience at the Royal Festival Hall, as a jazz festival crowd in Jakarta. More recently and nearer to home, St George’s in Kemp Town, has been playing an increasingly influential role in bringing jazz out of small specialised venues and more into the public eye.
Tonight, a quick glance around the building’s expansive neo-Gothic arches and creamy stone walls, soon reveals the presence of a good cross-section of Brighton: fellow musicians come to pay their respects; enthusiasts who believe in keeping music live; alternative Saturday night entertainment seekers; and dedicated fans not really into jazz at all, just into Courtney himself.
The first striking aspect of the evening is the stripped-down stage set: no rhythm section, no brass, no frills … and no band. Instead, we simply get a gracefully exotic Rahman walking on stage in a long blue and silver evening dress, hair cascading down her back like a fall of black sea- waves. Seating herself at the Yamaha, at first she seems almost hidden by it. It is when she begins to play that she seems to grow in presence. Her own solo introduction to the show is sometimes expressively rhythmical, sometimes staccato, and sometimes lyrical and flowing.
The duo’s extensive re-working of Let My People Go sees Pine and Rahman in dramatic interplay, with Pine giving the audience an emotional roller-coaster ride in spectacular slides up and down the scales. A Middle Eastern modal feel insinuates itself. Together, the two artists further develop and imbue the music with foreboding, unease and elements of “film-noir”, Pine providing the suspense, and Rahman, the mystery.
In stark contrast to this, Pine’s black-and-gold bass clarinet, nearly as big as himself, often punctuates the melody in discordant bursts, and he cheerfully gets it to belch, break wind and generally make rude noises like a disgruntled dinner guest, throughout the show. It seems to have a mind of its own, almost like a maverick third band member. He calms it down into a mellower mood on a spellbinding version of Windmills of Your Mind however, and Rahman weaves the simple tune into a glorious Indian raga, entrancing the audience. Here, the spiritual ambience and acoustics of the venue are revealed, combining with the players in a beautiful meditative enhancement of the tune.
Dedicating A Child is Born to his manager, Nikki Meadows, who has co-ordinated the whole Song tour, Pine seems determined to run the whole gamut of sound in his performance. Knee-length black dreads flying, leaning forward, clarinet ablaze, he dances from frantic guttural bursts, into ethereal flights of fancy, which seem to take the audience to another place and time. There are moments when Pine seems to confront us wilfully with random avant-garde feedback, but then he suddenly and unexpectedly leads us back into a softer, gentler realm. Taken from the new album, his breathtaking version of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, which he introduces with crisp sweet bird-like notes, is interspersed with soft high piano phrases from Rahman, giving it an intimate, deeply romantic, feel, with a tear-jerking undertone, ending on a lingering, very low bass clarinet solo, and bringing the audience to its feet. For the finale, Pine chooses to deliver One Last Cry, followed by Donny Hathaway’s rousing Some Day We’ll All Be Free as an encore, and ending with a warm verbal tribute to his sound engineer for making the resonance of the church interior such a pleasure for the players.
As a performer, Pine’s substantial body of work is jazz-based but hugely eclectic, and nowhere is this more evident than on Song and its unique interpretation of familiar ballads. The duo’s next stop is Cape Town, South Africa, where Pine will be working to get disadvantaged children involved in playing music as an alternative to being on the streets. You get the sense of a man wanting to use his celebrity to give something back to the world. After the gig, as he finishes signing CDs for the long queue of fans, gives a huge smile, and disappears with Rahman into the night, I sense that his quirky and individual take on jazz will help him do just that.