Soweto Kinch @ Ealing Jazz Festival, 31st July 2003

soweto kinchSoweto saunters into West London on something of a roll – his highly-rated debut album Conversations With The Unseen has been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, and he has also just received a Best Jazz Artist nomination for the MOBO awards.

In short, Soweto’s presence is quite a coup for this free festival in leafy Walpole Park, though a large tent full of rowdy jazz fans of all ages presents its own special challenges to the (relatively) inexperienced live performer. Will the teenagers drinking cider on the grass listen? Will the sound be up to it? As it turned out, they did listen and it was loud enough.

It’s clear from the outset that this band loves playing together. Drummer Troy Miller sets up his kit on the right of the stage facing inwards to maximise eye contact and reciprocate big smiles. Miller, guitarist Femi Temowo and bassist Michael Olatuja lock into a D’Angelo-esque hip-hop/jazz groove, full of behind-the-beat comping and empty spaces.

In true showman style, Kinch emerges mid-song and delivers not an incisive alto break but a bizarre spoken word introduction followed by an even more bizarre rap. It’s a strange but endearing opening – an invitation to the audience to get into the music, regardless of what should constitute a proper ‘jazz’ gig.

The band quickly moves into a slinky, tight ensemble piece full of shifting time signatures and jagged cross rhythms. Kinch unleashes a particularly heavy-duty solo, calling to mind the rhythmic intricacies of Charlie Parker, intervallic risk-taking of Greg Osby and the passion of Kenny Garrett.

Femi Temowo’s guitar offers a refreshing counterpoint to Kinch’s enormous technique. If hardly an original or particularly engaging soloist, never really straying from a George Benson/Wes template, he consistently finds interesting punctuation points under Kinch’s solos. However, Kinch’s uptempo compositions display an over-emphasis on complex time signatures and tricky song structures to show off the rhythm section’s malleability (and arithmetic skills.)

More successful is the slow-burning ‘Conversations With The Unseen’, an enigmatic ballad reminiscent of Wayne Shorter’s mid-‘60s output. Kinch’s solo is a fascinating blend of controlled aggression and angular invention. The arrival of trumpeter/vocalist Abram Wilson onto the stage signals a return to hip-hop, and ‘Jazz Planet’ rounds off the proceedings, an amusing rap about what would happen if jazz musicians were in positions of responsibility in society, updating the concept of Parliament’s ‘Chocolate City’.

The audience reaction is hysterical, and Kinch’s pleasure in performing is plain to see. The question is whether he feels like he’s going to have to choose in future between jazz and hip-hop, or take his inspiration from Courtney Pine and fuse the two. His band is equally adept at playing both, and on this evidence there’s no need to choose for a while yet.

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