Michael Henderson spent seven years in the 1970s playing edgy funk bass with Miles Davis after being recruited at 19 from Stevie Wonder’s band; drummer Norman Connors played spiritual jazz with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. This gig mined those early days when Connors stepped up to the mic and ululated soulfully on a highlight cover of Sanders’ “The Creator has a Master Plan”. And occasionally Henderson picked up his bass and slapped out a crunchy low-register riff.
But for the most part this retrospective gig kept the jazz funky but firmly in check and concentrated on the vocal releases of their R&B back catalogue. In 1975 the pair joined forces and released their first hit together, the smoochy late-night soul ballad “Valentine Love”. The even smoochier and more commercial “You Are My Starship” soon followed.
Henderson wrote and sang on both, and his solo career as a songwriter and soul-funk balladeer took off. Here he sporadically took centre-stage to croon well-crafted slow numbers in his attractive low-register tenor. But there was much more to cover. Henderson wrote disco groovers – the much sampled “Wide Receiver” was reprised to a wild reception – and had a penchant for duets. And Connors, a jazzier, more underground figure, produced club-friendly classics with a string of different vocalists. To cover all bases, therefore, vocal strength was needed in numbers, and four were drafted in. Each one had a distinct personality and a showcase number but the chop and change needed tighter continuity.
The music, though, was first rate. The UK-recruited version of the Starship Orchestra delivered short solos, funky rhythms and tight riffs. There was crowd-raising sax from Aaron Liddard and muted jazz trumpet from Paul Jordanous, slinky strings supported pitch-perfect backing vocals and every break was bang on the money.
Each lead vocalist added a different spice. Theonita Valentine had gospel strength and Cleveland Watkiss jazz panache. But it was the diminutive Carleen Anderson, pouring her soul into every nuance of Connors’ “Handle Me Gently”, who most won an already partisan audience’s heart, and justified the ovation and all-on-stage encore.