The original Jazz Warriors were a hugely influential black British big band initiated by Courtney Pine in the mid-1980s. Their mission was to celebrate black British musicianship and shake up the cliquey world of British jazz. Twenty years on, this one-off gig’s “Afropeans” were assembled to play new compositions celebrating Black History Month and the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade (part of a series of music events across London under the heading Passage of Music). With the context set – an opening, somewhat PowerPointy 15-minute film “bigged up” the project – the music needed to be really special.
The first unaccompanied crashing brass chord augured well, as did the bustling modal theme that followed. After a boppish bridge and some quick exchanges between sax, trumpet and violin, Pine overcame first-night nerves with a tenor sax break that peaked in a squawky duet with drummer Robbie Fordjour. A swirling guitar, lush violin and Saharan rhythms introduced “Crossing the Sands”, an extended feature for the swooping low notes and slap-tongued rhythms of Pine’s bass clarinet.
With the mood set, Pine became an avuncular presence, conducting and introducing a series of featured soloists over somewhat sketchy orchestrations. The rhythm section was top-notch, paring grooves down to their essential details, shifting gear with panache. And there were barnstorming solos. Violinist Omar Puente twice brought the band from a whisper to a roar, and on “A Tale of Joe Harriot” the excellent alto saxophonist Nathaniel Phelps played with a musical intelligence that matched his sharp-focused tone.
Though the three-hour concert never lost interest, it was patchy – a great vocalist singing duff lyrics, a spot-on rap with lugubrious delivery, one too many showcased soloists. Nice touches abounded – delicate bowed strings, a skanking reggae backing tailgate trombone, foot-stamping chains – but there were too many unaccompanied, multi-noted extravaganzas and not enough melody. It needed more orchestral fireworks to match the musicianship. Hugely entertaining, but, to quote Courtney Pine’s last words out of context, it came across a bit like “unfinished business”.