Afro-Beat Icon Tony Allen Sups At The Jazz Source For Capital Sidewinding Summit

tony-allen-jazzcafe

One of the distinguishing marks of the London Jazz Cafe's décor back in the halcyon days of the late 1990s was the acronymic command on the pillar in the centre of the room that was in full view of one and all – S.T.F.U. This incitation to silence, whose emphatically profane code was cracked by anybody who has had ever had cause to raise their voice so that a noisy neighbour would lower theirs, is no longer in place.

Yet it is sorely missed in the first part of this performance. Drummer Tony Allen makes a slow and easy start with his band. The music is mostly down tempo, the ambiance mellow, the themes subtle. At times you can't hear a damn thing for the small talk coming from all corners of the venue. The disconnect between the music and the attitude of the audience brings back unsavoury memories of artists either berating punters, as was the case with Ray Barretto, or, more dramatically, storming offstage, like Patricia Barber. Relaxed character that he is, Allen is not about to throw any kind of tantrum, and chances are the 77-year-old drummer probably lived through much more testing circumstances as a member of Fela Kuti's band in the 1960s and 1970s, times when life on the road in their native Nigeria and beyond could entail great disruption.

Having said that, Allen is decidedly not here in his capacity as one of the central architects of Fela's Afrobeat, and this launch gig for his Blue Note debut The Source is very much a tribute to the founding fathers of jazz drumming, above all the hard-bop legend Art Blakey, who inspired him as a fledgling musician. Using a sextet, with double bass, trumpet, tenor sax and piano, makes the reference clear enough, but the twist is that there is an electric guitar instead of the expected third horn, and Indy Dibongue largely opts for sharp finger-picked phrases rather than dense chords. Overall the music has levity, which suits the mild, leisurely swing and sauntering horns, yet compounds the problems for those who've come to listen.

tony-allen-JC2

It is only when Jean-Philippe Dary burns into an organ solo on a very tasty reprise of Bobby Timmons' 'Moanin'', one of Blakey's most enduring signature pieces, that the band ratchets up a notch in terms of volume and attack. Suddenly the energy on stage syncs up with the bustle off it. That's when the performance begins in earnest. More bite can be heard in some of Yann Jankielewicz's arrangements and the soloing from double-bassist Mathias Allamane in particular stirs meatier funk into the mix, which Allen matches with his effortlessly spring-loaded snare and hi-hat, their skipping patterns drawing a hearty response from those more than ready to loosen limbs. Therein lies the irony of the evening. The premise of the music is that Allen reveals another side of his musical character that requires as much a focused ear as it does a set of sidewinder hips, and, though the two are hardly incompatible, it is the latter that wills out on this occasion, which makes perfect sense, given the irresistibility of Allen's groove. Hearing this music when sat at Ronnie Scott's would be fascinating, for the change in ambience as well as, probably, the audience demographic. The evening ends with a chic cheer, in any case. Most members of the faithful have no hesitation in obeying Dary's order to 'make some noise'. Some crack a wry smile.

– Kevin Le Gendre

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