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A Change is Gonna Come, Brighton Festival review - lively, winning jazz adventure | reviews, news & interviews

A Change is Gonna Come, Brighton Festival review - lively, winning jazz adventure

A Change is Gonna Come, Brighton Festival review - lively, winning jazz adventure

Reimagined civil rights protest songs make for a musically rich evening

Jazz girl power

Watching this band in action is a treat. They gel absolutely and play off one another in a manner that’s easy and mellow, yet also sparks by occasionally teetering on the edge of their virtuosic abilities.

The songs played throughout the evening at Brighton Festival are protest classics and other socially aware fare, but the group’s leader-arrangers, singer Carleen Anderson and keyboard player Nikki Yeoh, have turned them, via jazz, into almost completely new pieces of music.

Take an extended jam that combines “Oh, Freedom”, the anti-slavery spiritual made famous by activist-folk singer Odetta, and “Freedom”, originally by Anderson’s early Nineties acid jazz outfit Young Disciples. The songs are peeled apart, deconstructed, riding along over a slow-rolling funk offered by the masterful rhythm section of Brit bass prodigy Renell Shaw and Rod Youngs, Gil Scott-Heron’s drummer of choice (there’s an awesome drum versus bass play-off between these two later in the evening). Within this framework saxophonist Nubya Garcia, Jazz FM’s Breakthrough Act of this year, has space to float, and Yeoh spins a spectacular synth solo.

The effect is laid back yet also swinging and sassy, a long-form fusion of soul and prog-jazz. It’s exactly the kind of music whose self-indulgence usually turns me off completely, yet this lot make it happen, make it fire with spirit, even mustering loose fringe-flutterings of psychedelia. They’ve come together for something earnest and worthy – celebrating the civil rights era in song – but engage much beyond the cerebral and historic.

The evening is in two halves with an interval. The lights initially go down between songs and Anderson tells us what we’re about to hear. The first half is the lesser but still very decent. The show opens with Garcia, clad in tight red with an African scarf about her head, essaying John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, his response to the 1963 Klu Klux Klan Birmingham church-burning atrocity. It’s long, atmospheric and involving, setting the tone for what follows. Other highlights include MC Speech Debelle running Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” into her own, “No War, No Peace”. She mumbles at first and seems more hesitant than the other performers, but eventually hits the night’s first real groove.

The second half is where things really hit their stride, opening with Debelle persuading the audience to their feet for a hip hop jamboree. We’re soon into a piece called “Amelioration” featuring poetry from Renell Shaw. Anderson is clearly the respected key figure here, a doyenne of alt-jazz who has gone from a successful pop career into experimental territory, her vibe somewhere between Neneh Cherry, Alice Coltrane and Minnie Ripperton; indeed the way her voice swoops into the very highest registers recalls the latter singer.

I’m not keen on Anderson’s wild melismatics, but when she adopts a moaning, rasping blues tone, as on sections of “Oh, Freedom” and Nina Simone’s “Four Women”, it hits you in the gut. She also regularly uses a microphone effect that adds harmonics. This sometimes brings an unearthly, robot-ethereal feel but on other occasions sounds like the multi-tracked demon voice from Hollywood horror films. Mostly, however, it keeps reminding me of the talk box sections on Peter Frampton’s hugely successful but dreadful Frampton Comes Alive!.

The latter reference springs to the fore again when the group attacks the masterful Sam Cooke song that gives the concert its title, for Yeoh actually has a talk box on her mic/keys. By the time of this final jam, however, I’ve long lost interest in thinking about Frampton. Like the rest of the enthusiastic audience, all whoops and finger-clicks, I’ve been swept off by the fluid, emotionally engaged musicianship. After a final hearty audience address and band intro by Yeoh, they end by having us stand and chant a chorus of “Young people, big people, every people/You’ve got to rise to the top together for peace” while they play. We do this willingly then, after a raucously received stage-front appearance, they disappear. We hope for more but the lights go up, and we too leave, elated.

Below: Watch a trailer for A Change is Gonna Come

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