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It might seem a little unfair to the genre, but I’ve always understood the idea of the phrase close enough for jazz. However, when I saw advertised that the poet, novelist and university lecturer Anthony Joseph was gigging (hosted by the entity that is Jazz re:freshed), I decided to investigate the possibility that the jazz I had previously complained about – ‘Just how many duff notes in a row can these guys hit, man?’ – could indeed be ‘re:freshed’.

On a sopping wet floor at Mau Mau, made so by the sweat of an incredibly diverse audience, I witnessed a jazz-hybrid that one could only call peculiar.

Undeniably cool and played with plenty of bottom-end bass, it was a simple mid-tempo anthem-like opener that provided accompaniment to a modest entrance, reminiscent of New Orleans’ jazz pioneer Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden, consisting of a couple of steps out of the audience and onto the stage. Quickly, anyone with working ears had to accept that there are correlations between jazz, black history and struggle through rhetoric, subtlety delivered with non-preachy skill, over movie-score-esque psychedelic-infused rhythms.

In an interview with the front man, in response to questions about influences, both literary and musical, the return of vinyl (the audience was crammed with listeners with actual LPs) and Brexit (considering the political slant of some of his lyrics), the West Indian said something I have never heard said before. Speaking of the irrefutable lyrical might of Calypsonians – specifically The Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, The Mighty Shadow and the like – ‘their way with words [makes] them nothing short of Wordsmiths’. Similarly, he spoke of his grandmother being a great storyteller and his father’s ministerial and oratorical approach that was often a blend of the sacred and the profane. He labelled Sir Derek Alton Walcott ‘the greatest living poet’ as well as being equally influenced by Kamau Braithwaite, Wilson Harris and the Beat Writers -Ginsberg, Kerouac and Baraka – adding that Black American surrealism in writing also contributed to his artistry. On vinyl, he simply said, ‘It never really went away; it has a warmth that cannot be digitally reproduced.’ On Brexit, he had little to offer except ‘heartbreaking’.

Anthony’s latest album Caribbean Roots was released on the Strut/Heavenly Sweetness Label and launched at the Jazz Café last November. He spoke of the specialness of such an opportunity, ‘We hardly get to play in the UK, usually just once or twice a year, so it was an important show. It’s not easy to headline the Jazz Café on a Saturday night and pack it out – but that’s what we did.’

I suppose if history has taught us nothing, at least let it remind us of those that came before, who were sufficiently courageous to dig their heels in when the powers that be said (or tried to say) ‘nuh-uh’ to basic human rights. John Hammond was one such stubborn visionary, resisting the ban that made playing ‘black music’ illegal on radio stations in the US in the 1930s. Had he (and those like him) not, Anthony Joseph’s unapologetic, poetic lyrics juxtaposing history’s dark past with jazz might not have found their way to a Saturday night headline spot at the Jazz Café.

Anthony is a poet first, but one able to speak the musician’s language and deliver a musical approach that blends Caribbean vibes, tight, jocular lyricism, traditional soca-infused cadences and the frenetic unrehearsed energy that one associates with a carnival alongside the unpredictable, clinical meticulousness of experimental jazz. He continues to contribute to jazz’s already very deep roots, opening a new door for us weary 8-beats-per-minute philistines to gyrate through.

To listeners lacking that sophisticated ear I say this: close enough for jazz is a phrase that we could do well to misplace altogether.

 

The band
Anthony Joseph: Vocals
Jason Yarde: Alto/Soprano Sax/Percussion
Shabaka Hutchings – Tenor Sax
Christian Arcucci – Guitar
Andrew John – Bass
Eddie Wakili Hick – Drums
Roger Raspail – Ka, Congas, Percussion

 

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Photo cover by Mirabel White