In Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron: A Night at the Jazz Cafe [Gig Review]
Jazz is great. It holds such a special place in our musical repertoire and is bearing of a very unique relationship between us and the genre. There are few other musical genres within which you find yourself drowned in an amalgamation of utter respect, profound enjoyment, evergreen curiosity and a sense of deep gratefulness when listening to songs - as you might do when listening to jazz. This latter point of gratitude is one that strikes us often. It stems from the quite expansive reality that without jazz, the people behind it and the way it wove into and moves society so significantly, quite a substantial amount of the music we listen to and enjoy today simply wouldn't exist.
Indeed, you wouldn't be hard pressed to find direct elements of jazz in modern hip-hop, to use one of the most notable examples. From samples, to borrowed instruments, to rhythms - these elements hold important places in the music we love and widely consume today. To really bring this point home, for the specific jazz musician we're talking about here, literally some of the biggest and most influential names in the industry today - the likes of Drake, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott - have all sampled and taken from his music.
And there's a reason for that. Jazz has found its place in the musical universe as the inimitable surrogate for that which is special, and is able to smash through the barriers of time and generation that usually separate music. There's a reason you still find Jazz, in one form or another, at times in the most unforgiving arenas musically. And at the Jazz Cafe, through a performance in tribute to Gil Scott-Heron, it performed it's duty again with distinction. Interestingly though, not in solely musical terms.
A little on the venue itself: This was our first night at the Jazz Cafe - a fact which has been true for too long given our affinity with the genre and it's music. It's safe to say that a return is very comprehensively in the bag, to use a technical term. Everything, from the security at the door and the bar staff manning the drinks, to the layout of the room and the energy within, was just great. The Jazz Cafe has also been home to the musical performances of Amy Whinehouse, Adele and Evelyn King, to name but a few.
When we had the privilege of speaking to Kim Jordan after the show (Musical director, vocals, and keys for Gil Scott-Heron from 2004 until his death) and reflecting on the performance that had just been, there was a certain magic in the room that she felt to be the living memory - the spirit - of Scott-Heron with us. It was this, to Kim, that catalysed a really quite beautiful dynamic that was present between the audience, the band, and the music itself. We reflected with her that there was a reciprocity that emerged between the folk giving the show and the folk receiving it, and within the context of a technical instrument failure that fundamentally changed the band's ability to carry out the setlist, this was important - but more on this later.
Through this phenomenon shared in reciprocity, doubtlessly observed too by the large, committed following Gil keeps (both in music and outside of it), here we saw jazz again preserving that almost indefinable something special and allowing it to blossom in contemporary manifestation. In this case, to many of those in the room, including Kim and the rest of the group, it was Gil Scott-Heron himself.
The show opened with Malik & The O.G's. The band are headed by Malik Al Nasir, hailing from Liverpool (maintaining his strong Liverpudlian accent, which only adds elements to the delivery of his poetics) and putting on a show centred around his experience of racism and oppression, and translation of the vicarious experiences of his history line that went through the same. The content, therefore, was naturally harder-hitting, provocative and emotional. It was wonderful not only that this was possible in the first place - the unfiltered expression of uncomfortable topics, but that it was music that was the thing that facilitated this. Music, by the way, that was a constant joy, with jazz solo's and funk surrounding Malik's poetry. It presented a nice blend of jazz, spoken word and poetry, which when written down seems like a formula that can almost never miss. The band were still warming up sonically, and at times Malik's delivery felt very slightly off of what it needed to be, but with each verse and solo both Malik & the O.G's and the crowd progressed into an infectious looseness and movement which paved the way perfectly for the next act. A really good set to warm us up.
Described widely as Gil's protégé, it was no coincidence that the warm up was what it needed to be and the line-up was what it was. Having seen what Gil meant to people, the legacy he effortlessly created and left, and the overwhelming influence he had on the scene and those around him, it made sense that a boy in Malik, essentially written off in his youth, unemployed and half-literate met Gil backstage at the age of 18 by chance and was now coming into our lives through a packed Jazz Cafe performance. If there was a chain of events that could encapsulate the impact that Gil had on those around him, this would be it. Malik has gone on to write, record and perform good music, write a book (available before being published, to the lucky audience on the night) and lately be in the process of completing a PhD at Cambridge. The opposites presented in that journey from then to now, in large part stemming from the mentorship that Gil provided, was appropriately fitting as tribute to the man himself and spoke to this gravitas of Gil Scott-Heron that was, and still is, so real.
After a 30 minute intermission, then came the main act. As is so often the way in Jazz music, we were introduced to the band not through traditional introductions, but through their solo's and spotlight moments. In between songs, the band's lead vocalist, Noel McKoy, would tell fond stories of his interactions with Gil. This again struck the point of those who met Gil seeming to be impacted in lasting ways, unable to register those moments as anything less than noteworthy and to be shared. In the sense that this show was a tribute, even the unplanned moments in between, served to paint the portrait of Gil's character being something that was soft, but so present, and so extremely consequential.
It was during one of these moments in between that a problem surfaced. Noel, on the mic, told the audience he was going to speak for a little longer than planned, owing to some emerging issues with the keys, of course with none other than Kim Jordan at the helm of it. Attentive observers in the audience would've seen Kim creating a 'battle plan' on how to keep the show on the road in the best possible way given the issues, and communicating this to the other band members whilst some smooth filler was offered by Noel and the band. Although probably unbeknownst to the crowd, this was a good jazz band exploiting what is one of the principle keys of the entire genre - improv - and it was done through Gil's musical director literally directing the new plan of action on the fly for a night in tribute to Gil Scott-Heron… Doesn't life imitate art?
After the show, we found out that it was a problem with the sustaining pedal on the keyboard not working, therefore meaning that ballads couldn't be played. We were told by other members of the band after the show that this meant the setlist had to be changed, and in other places still, altered. It's of course unfortunate that this had to be the case, and we know having played live music before that being mired in technical issues just simply isn't the one, but there were two striking things for us that came out of this: 1) The improv-in-mitigation was done so well, that you wouldn't have even noticed it in the first place, and 2) that the alteration came in the form of longer, more frequent solo's, which purely from an 'enjoying the jazz' standpoint was, literally, music to our ears. It does feel like this is one of the very few genres where something going wrong can sound so right.
The setlist was one of flow (even in spite of issues that would seemingly impede this) and there were only a few 'standout' moments by virtue of the baseline (metaphorically, though the bass did also slap too) being so consistently high. Parts of the audience were, much like us, dancing and singing a whole lot - with this being the fuel that the reciprocation of energy aforementioned ran on, and continued to run on right the way through to the last curtain. As ever, that curtain was felt to have come way too soon.
This night was a tribute, let's be crystal clear. When we think of musical tributes, it can be quite a scary musical topic, because whether it's at your local pub or on cheap European holidays - rusty tribute acts can leave a lingering, sour taste in your mouth. But this wasn't that kind of tribute. This went levels above and was a tribute to the man who changed it all, the music that changed it all, and the magic in both of those things that have been unanimously felt by people since 1970 - the start of Gil's recording career. A paradoxical tribute, so also made true by the fact that as well as their music making Gil shine, every single one of them on the stage shined too.
Jazz is great. On its own, Jazz has that 'thing'. But when Jazz is run in perfect intertwine with the kind of feelings and undertones as they were on this night, in the way that they did, there are few things we think can top it. This was, in every single way it can hold true, a night of jazz at the Jazz Cafe.