With no support act and an interminable wait from the doors opening at 7 pm to the curtain rising a full two hours later (I tweeted the venue a couple of hours in advance and asked a steward half an hour before to confirm times, but to no avail), by the time Courtney Pine and his five-piece band eventually walked on stage to open their two-night residency at the Jazz Cafe in Camden, my patience was wearing thin. And given that I had consumed the best part of a bottle of red wine, let’s just say my eyesight was more Mad Dog 20/20 than top dog 20/20.
However, as soon as the award-winning phenomenon from “London, UK, Europe” that is Courtney Pine OBE CBE breathed in a deep lungful of the crisp December air and started to run his dexterous fingers up and down the shaft of his electronic wind instrument (ewi for short) faster than Usain Bolt with the runs, all was forgiven. For along with his extraordinarily talented quintet featuring guitarists Chris Cobbson and Cameron Pierre, bassist Vidal Montgomery, drummer Robert Fordjour and on steel pans Samuel Dubois, Pine delivered a 5-star performance which was toe-tapping, hip-swaying and utterly, utterly life-affirming.
I don’t play, but over the years as my interest and involvement in theatre has waned, I’ve developed a love for jazz – live jazz – which has seeped into my bones. First of all through Scottish musicians Fionna Duncan and Brian Kellock and latterly English vocalists and pianists Liane Carroll and Ian Shaw. And even though I don’t live in London, I’ve attended gigs at most of the prestigious jazz venues in and around the capital city on numerous occasions with the 606 Club in Chelsea and the Vortex in Dalston being my favourites. However, tonight marked a double-first for me in that I had never seen Courtney Pine live and I had never been to the “legendary” Jazz Cafe. To quote Big Arnie: I’ll be back!
The reason I divulge this is that many of the tracks and titles, as well as influences and references mentioned during the course of the nigh-on two-hour set, went over my head. However, much like going to the National Gallery or the Tate Modern, you don’t have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the works on show, their creators or even the titles to appreciate the experience, what matters is the art and the impact it has on you. And on that front, Pine & Co were immense. From his explosive and tender solos to his playful and challenging duets, he had the standing audience on the ground floor and the seated punters in the upper gallery stomping and clapping, waving and jumping, and at one point engaging in a psychedelic version of heads, shoulders, knees and toes.
But in addition to the barnstorming gig, what really came through was Pine’s love of live music, audiences and venues, regardless of whether they are in guitarist Chris Cobbson’s home town of Swindon or on the foreign soil of one his most recent gigs in Ethiopia which he comically described as: “Trust me geez, it was wicked”. Making reference to a DJ booth stage left, he urged the crowd to value, appreciate and patronise live music venues such as the “world-famous Jazz Cafe where you are allowed to have a good time” otherwise it will “turn into a Lidl, an Aldi, not Waitrose, but maybe Tesco”.
And on an even more serious note, given the rise of the far-right in Europe, the divisive politics of Trump and Brexit, and the perceived increase in global terror, his closing remark that “jazz has the ability to bring people together” is something we should all celebrate. As he put it himself after walking amongst and dancing with the crowd during his closing number, audiences might not like or understand all of his music, but “we come on stage not to bring disharmony, but harmony.” And regardless of which side of the political spectrum you come from, we could all do with a bit more of that as we box up the trials and tribulations of 2016 and open the Pandora’s box that is 2017.