I’m tempted to plagiarise from my preview piece (18/06) and describe Julian Joseph’s boxing-themed Cultural Olympiad commission, The Brown Bomber, as ‘a knockout show’ (or something to that effect, probably involving the word ‘knockout’). In a sense, though, little could be more misleading. Far from flooring spectators at its Sadler’s Wells premiere on 20 June, the 12-minute dance suite brought them to their feet. And rightly so. The re-enactment of Joe Louis’ historic 1938 clash with Max Schmeling came as the triumphant conclusion to an evening of vivacious choreography and top-flight jazz.
This was partly a celebration of Joseph’s recent partnership with the educational organisation Hackney Music Development Trust. The show kicked off with a dance piece based on their first genre-crossing venture, Shadowball, a jazz opera about America’s Negro baseball leagues in the 1940s. Since 2010, it’s been performed by school children across the country, and this reworking featured over a dozen young dancers from HMDT’s I Can Sing! community group. Their vintage costumes – along with a sepia-tinted set seemingly redolent of long Kansas afternoons – were matched by Joseph’s excellent sextet, delivering a score that summoned up the spirits of Basie, Ellington and Armstrong.
When it comes to pure, barnstorming swing, there can be few British pianists capable of outdoing Joseph, his full-bodied sound at once driving and utterly relaxed, bristling with life yet firmly rooted in the great tradition. Before the headline act, his sextet took centre stage, playing standards that had been popular in 1938. Highlights included a languid, longing version of ‘Summertime’ and a sparkling, mischievously up-tempo ‘Jumpin’ at the Woodside’. Joseph’s got an eye for new talent, and his brass section’s combined age was still decidedly youthful. On show were the limber lines of trombonist Ross Anderson, along with 20-year old Jackson Mathod, whose moment came during a jaunty duet rendition of ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’ with Joseph (pictured).
After a short interval, everyone returned to find the baseball pitch gone and an austere training room in its place. Beneath a reel of archive film, divided by ring ropes, the combatants limbered up for their meeting. Sheron Wray’s choreography caught the mixture of grace and aggression, as the dancers skipped across the stage one minute and hammered punch-bags the next. The music answered the action, with Joseph’s darting, angular piano playing off a tense 7/8 pulse from Mark Mondesir’s hissing snare, like a fighter trying to wrong-foot his opponent. This brooding atmosphere made way for more ebullient sounds – by the time Louis and Schmeling had stepped into the ring, the sextet were channelling Goodman and Gershwin.
Back in 1938, Louis won in two minutes flat. On this occasion, though, the scene froze before the final blow had been landed. The reason for this may have been the fight’s surprising postscript: Louis and Schmeling became close friends, in spite of the violent ideological rift between their countries. For Joseph and HMDT, who specialise in breaking down boundaries, this was clearly what mattered in the end.
The Brown Bomber goes to the Southbank Centre on 15 July. For more info see southbankcentre.co.uk
– Orlando Bird