Knoel Scott takes on tradition at the 100 Club

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Knoel Scott

If walls could talk then the 100 Club, squeezed between Oxford street’s identikit chain stores, would tell a story worth putting on film. The modernist logo of the 1986 Soho jazz festival as well as a charmingly grainy poster of Tommy Chase, arguably Britain’s own Art Blakey in said decade, offer a reminder of the key place of the venue in the capital’s cultural history while behind the stage a framed cover of a Son House record sleeve tells you all you need to know about the deep heritage of black music that can be felt from ceiling to floor, as befits an establishment whose doors first swung open in 1942.

Knoel Scott fits right in. Although his main CV credit, mainstay of the Sun Ra Arkestra for the best part of four decades, may suggest that he comes from one of the most singular of locations on the landscape of African-American music, the saxophonist unveils a much wider set of references. In his tails and engaging stage presence we see a shade of Cab Calloway; in the unabashed romanticism of his singing, particularly on the second set highlight ‘Don’t Misunderstand’ we feel the spirit of Nat ‘King’ Cole; and in the bulk of the material we hear extensions of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop innovations. Backed by a young British ensemble – Charlie Stacey [piano] Michele Montolli [bass] Shane Forbes [drums] – that is both adequately responsive and aggressive, Scott, and this is the most impressive thing about the performance, provides an all too rare display of how all of the aforesaid disparate historic characters are part of a bigger, coherent story.

Scott’s hard, flinty alto, slightly leaning to Jackie McLean and the more languorous approach to the tenor show how well rooted he is in the founding fathers, as does a thrillingly taut negotiation of Parker’s ‘Lover.’ But it is his evocative, if not poetic burst of narration on a slyly lopsided harmonization of Earl Hagen’s ‘Harlem Nocturne’ that really underlines how important is the crossing of the bridge between the musical and the vocal in jazz, despite the fact that leader and band have ‘chops’ in abundance. Also pleasing is the way the group frequently shifts between a particularly tough backbeat and soaring swing which gives the impression, as Forbes moves from robust kick drum patterns to a fluid ride cymbal, of a bird being released from a cage, and it is the funky, drum & bass-inflected ‘Configuration’ that is the peak of these sharp structural gymnastics.

Moreover, forays into a deliciously moaning, walking blues and pulsating Afro-Latin rhythms also underline how committed Scott is to breaking down any putative barriers between populism and ‘art music’ and had this concert taken place at a festival with standing room only – Soho 86 anybody? – it is entirely possible that the faithful would have been up and lindyhopping. Then again a reverential hush falls on the venue during what is another grand moment to savour, ‘Prologue To Love’, an extremely tender sax-piano duet in which Scott’s ability to write themes that tease at melancholy without wallowing in it is well served by very focused, intricate comping from Stacey that belies his 21 summers. Although there could have been a bigger audience this is a recent highlight of London jazz gigs for the fact that it says so much about the complexity of ‘traditions’ rather than ‘tradition’, and that past, present and future are anything but ships that pass in the night. 

– Kevin Le Gendre