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Matthew Ruddick

Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Saturday, 10 August 2019 01:09

Spirit Fingers featuring Theon Cross, 23 July, Pizza Express, London

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Cosmic skills from Spirit Fingers.

I'm hoping for a great performance from a cosmic line-up. 

This performance features pianist, composer and producer Greg Spero who is heralded by the iconic Quincy Jones as "an absolutely beautiful human being and artist who knows how to play from his soul,". Greg is the mastermind behind this rhythmically-charged, groove-oriented and genre-bending collective known as Spirit Fingers.

Dario Chiazzolino is a multi-award-winning Italian guitarist, composer and one of Italy’s most in-demand jazz musicians.  Dario continues to perform regularly and records with many top European and American jazz musicians including the Yellow Jackets, Billy Cobham and Bob Mintzer. 

Maximilian 'Max' Gerl is an acoustic and electric bassist hailing from East Dallas. Max has played, performed, or recorded with an infinite number of artists from Jack DeJohnette, Mike Moreno, Bernard Wright to Sean Jones. 

And last but not least 'Blaque Dynamite', aka Mike Mitchell who by the age of 17, had performed with Kamasi Washington. 

The band converged to the stage like a moth to dimmed light followed by a single whistle from the audience. The whistle resonates with the Fast Show’s ‘Jazz Club’ comedy sketch followed by laughter and more applause.

My expectation levels are stratospherically high. Jazz Crusader, aka Hugh Chambers, has told me on many occasions Spirit Fingers' live performances are exceptional. The question was had Hugh grown too attached to the band to make an unbiased opinion.? Had I got too familiar from the release of their studio album? Are the standards still tight? Let’s see.  

Pizza Express High Holborn is a bustling venue. The summer vibes are a blistering 32 degrees on the outside, a cool 20 degrees inside and it is filling early. Nice! The staff are buzzing around keeping up with orders and bookings before the show. This is important as it sets the tempo for this evening's entertainment.  

Greg opens with Tune 50. This is new, and it's not on the album. The time signature is intricate, followed swiftly by Blaque Dynamite's rapid 'rata-tat-tat'. I'm thinking, wow! This is the first tune, and they're on fire!

There is no time for applause during the two-second pause leading into Being. Just like the album, this is a studio-quality performance. If any mistakes are going to be made, they are going to be heard.  The band are so consumed with the groove. There are so many songs flowing from four instruments, each with its own signature. By now, the band are consumed. I'm consumed, and most importantly, the audience is consumed. The phrasing is so clear and accurate; there is no room for misinterpretation by the audience. Pow! Spirit Fingers are on point. I'm not sure how Blaque Dynamite resisted the temptation to run free. His control is very Zen. There are no mistakes. 

Greg talks to the crowd and introduces the band announcing the release of the Spirit Fingers Vinyl with the 22-minute piano solo.  He surprises the packed audience with new ballad temporarily titled Tune 52. A classical intro crossing musical boundaries emphasising the accents with the sustain pedal. The chords and stealth notes resonate through this intimate venue. A time to reflect on Greg's solo skills and standard music structure and you quickly grasp the theme. Dario's guitar skills have the accuracy of infamous archer Robin Hood, for they are both legendary. The crowd interrupt this composition with an impromptu round of applause recovering from the ethereal experience and surfing on a tidal wave of emotions.   

The last tune for the first set features special guest Theon Cross. This London based tuba player is not easily missed with his ubiquitous presence. He is at the centre of the UK jazz scene collective and famously known for his appearances with Sons of Kemet, Moses Boyd and Kano. Demands for his performances are relentless. He stands centre front stage and is overshadowed by the monolithic tuba. This is insane. How do you hold such as a gargantuan piece of brass? Theon's opening phrase to this untitled improvisation are seismic, transitioning to a heavy Chicago-fused, New Orleans Afro-beat inspired mishmash. It's about to go down. Scratch that! It went nuclear. Theon is lost in the groove. All I can see is his Baker Boy cap swinging to the hypnotic tempo, and as he does, the stage lights bounce off the tuba adding an unexpected dazzling yet pleasing effect to his performance.

For the second set, an untitled improvisation erupts with a cacophony of sounds. This is definitely a Sun-Ra moment with each instrument sprinting to the end of what seems to be a non-existent vamp before being lassoed to order by Greg's 6/4-time signature. I'm not sure how Theon hit the high octave notes in stark contrast to the usual low tuba sounds, but he does, all the while Dario is holding an incredible flamenco lead on the guitar. The dynamics, the visual interactions are very funky with Blaque Dynamite's next-level drumming. 

One of the most impressionable moments from this show was For featuring the amazing talents of Max Geri. Max's bass skills are comparable to a modern and young Jaco. There is no mistaking his influences in the solo parts. 

You could not finish with a better track than You. Everyone gets to showcase their skills in this finale with Max's solo, followed by Greg and Dario locked in tight.  This piece is played with impeccable finesse and is never played the same way more than twice. It's all about the syncopated beats close to 320 bpm. I'm breathless. There is no bridge its a straight transition from verse to chorus to verse. The pièce de résistance is Blaque Dynamite's exploding 7-minute solo. There was no holding back. You need to check Mike Mitchell. 

The downside was Greg's back was to the audience due to the stage set-up. I am one for watching facial expressions between the musicians as it often provides cues in terms of interactions. However, Would I go to see them again? Well yes. 

Compelling, collective and cosmic skills like this are as frequent as Haley's comet.


Read 3234 times Last modified on Saturday, 10 August 2019 09:26

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