Review: Ayanna & Kairos 4tet in Gateshead

Fred Grand reviews Ayanna & the Kairos 4tet, two acts with differing approaches to the idea of crossing over to a mainstream audience 

Ayanna Witter-JohnsonThe Sage's commitment to top-flight international jazz doesn't just begin and end with the annual Gateshead International Jazz Festival. Each season's programme usually has something to offer to the various strands and factions within the jazz constituency, and this particular double-bill was very much a showcase for contemporary British talents.

Singer-cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson (pictured) appeared at the curtain raiser of this year's festival, opening for Roberto Fonseca. On that occasion her short but punchy set was in the cavernous main hall, her slight frame and minimal set-up looking extremely lonely on such a big stage. I can't imagine that a musician who whilst living in New York in 2010 won the Harlem Apollo Theatre's prestigious Amateur Night Live contest would have been fazed by such a grand platform, but it was nevertheless good to see her in the more intimate Foundation Hall this time around.

Her 45-minute set was actually very similar to the performance in March, running a gamut of pop covers (including The Police's Roxanne), original soul ballads, earthy down-home blues and some politically charged material delivered with a laconic confidence recalling the great Fontella Bass. Taking a singer-songwriter's approach in which her cello laid down skeleton chords for each song in the best tradition of the troubadour, some occasional bowed and pizzicato flourishes suggested that she's also quite an improviser. Work with numerous ensembles, including Courtney Pine's Afropeans, offers a better showcase for Ayanna's non-vocal talents, but this particularly exposed format is designed to showcase her sassy voice and emotionally honest songs.

Her highly concentrated set clocked in at just about the right length, drawing to a close just before things may have begun to feel a bit samey. An impromptu encore at the piano gave a further glimpse of her great musicality, and perhaps tellingly the welcome sense of contrast it brought happened to produce the biggest round of spontaneous applause of the evening. There's no doubting that Ayanna is a truly gifted performer who is destined for a glittering career in a number of branches of music, though I sense that on the evidence of these two shows this particular format may have limited potential.

Also touted for crossover appeal and more than capable of telling their MOBOs from their MOJOs, Adam Waldmann's Kairos 4tet belong rather less equivocally to the world of contemporary jazz. This tour had been cancelled earlier in the year after an injury left Waldmann in need of an operation to his arm, but the only thing requiring surgery during the group's scintillating performance was Waldmann's trusty soprano saxophone. Perhaps suffering from a weak spring or sticky pad, the genial leader made light of this potential embarrassment and with some on-the-spot TLC he just about got his principal horn through the gig.

Essentially an English melodist who slots into a lineage that includes Surman, Sulzmann, Argüelles and Ballamy, Waldmann also comes with one or two unique selling points of his own. His frame of reference naturally encompasses the ubiquitous influence of Coltrane and the wistful impressionism Garbarek's great quartets with Jarrett and Stenson, but a canny knack for tapping in to today's beats and grooves gives his music a distinctive and thoroughly contemporary edge. Featuring the redoubtable Ivo Neame and Jasper Høiby (of Phronesis) and and the post-drum 'n' bass percussion of drummer Jon Scott, Kairos form the perfect vehicle to execute Waldmann's wide-ranging sweep.

Yet unlike many ensembles with crossover potential, I sense very little compromise within the music of Kairos. In a set drawing on new material written during Waldmann's enforced summer sabbatical and selected tracks from the group's first two albums, their presence on stage was little short of magnetic. VC first appeared on the group's debut, and it was fascinating to watch Høiby closely shadowing Waldmann during its repetitive opening single-note figure. Dramatically opening out into a relaxed but angular post-M Base groove, it was but one of many highlights. Introducing The Philosophy Of Futility, its title inspired by Paul Nystrom's anti-materialist writings, Waldmann jokingly reminded the audience that CDs were for sale in the foyer. Russell's Resurgence drew the quartet into turbulent modal waters, whilst Reunion, a new piece which no doubt will appear on the group’s forthcoming album, had an almost incantatory or hymnal feel.

Architecture and boundaries are always visible in Waldmann's music, though what makes it so smart and uncompromising is the generous licence for the group to fill in the gaps. Playing through these occasionally ambiguous spaces and feeling the music's inner pulse are skills that simply can't be over-estimated; demanding acute listening skills and an intuitive grasp of the material at hand, Kairos really understand form. Høiby was simply all over his bass in a highly accomplished but unshowy tour de force, whilst Neame worked out from the centre of the keyboard in several fluid solos which skirted Tyner and Corea. Scott's almost clockwork precision had a spontaneity and flexibility that allowed him to heighten the tension at key moments, and Waldmann's own melodicism on tenor and soprano was accentuated by a thick and fruity tone. I'm yet to hear anything to suggest that his renewal to the fabled "English" sound won't have legs, and in taking on board a healthy bag of new influences, most crucially perhaps the eclectic approach of the LOOP Collective, his appeal may yet transcend national boundaries. There was no time for an encore due to the Sage's fairly rigid curfew but I left the concert feeling thoroughly uplifted and in no way cheated. Kairos - a propitious opportunity indeed.

Photo: Bumi Thomas

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