Following Terence Blanchard last month, Band on the Wall has excelled again, attracting yet another jazz legend to the North West’s Best Small Venue (I’m with the NME on this one).
Lonnie Liston Smith earned his chops playing in the seminal 60s/70s bands of Roland Rahsaan Kirk and Pharoah Sanders (not to mention providing keys for Miles Davis on his highly influential On The Corner of 1972) and has had his riffs sampled by artists such as Jay-Z and Mary J Blige.
Now 72, Smith has surrounded himself with young guns – but his advancing years have not dimmed his enthusiasm or invention. Standing as he plays, he leans back, head up, eyes closed, mouth contorted as if possessed. This current band apparently persuaded him to come out of retirement, and the crowd here is very glad they did.
But this is not just his show. The New Cosmic Echoes are quite something else. Drummer Lee Pearson is the fulcrum on which the rest of the band pivots – providing a solid pounding backdrop but never afraid to mix up the time signatures and develop thrilling interplay with bassist Vernon Prout and Samir Moulay.
Moulay’s vocoder guitar-work adds an extra dimension to the proceedings, and he demonstrates complete command of his instrument. On occasion they trade offbeats which seem to go on forever, and then right themselves in a satisfying crescendo or move off into another style altogether. Indeed, some of the most scintillating sections of the set are where they deviate from softer funkier grooves and double the speed into straight-ahead swing.
My early reservations about the lack of a horn player are dispelled by the voice of Pearson’s sister, Tabitha, who has a voice like a soprano sax. A hard-edged sound initially, she has something of Dianne Reeves about her, with sublime tuning and interesting note choices. And when she goes up the registers, into areas where lesser singers sound like dog whistles, she shows more than enough technique to bring emotion to the piece. I usually wince at these Mariah Carey-esque exercises, but here it is entirely effortless and justified.
Some of the slower Latin sections (and the occasional 80s synth sounds) are not to my taste, but this is nit-picking. When a band plays this well together, you just lean back and enjoy the ride.
Review by Chris Payne
Main images by Chris Payne
Where: Band on the Wall, Manchester