Sunday Fusion featuring Joe Leader – Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho, London 20 July 2014

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"Please welcome onto the stage, UK jazz sensation, Mr Joe Leader,” boomed a voice during the other-worldly-sounding opening of this intimate lunchtime gig at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho. Presently working within the smooth jazz genre as a solo recording artist, saxophone virtuoso, Leader, exuded a self-assured hubris, further bigged up by a curly-edged band banner above the stage containing links to his social media.

Joined by Andres Garcia on guitar, Alex Bennett on keyboards, and Phill Arnold on drums for this, his new Sunday Fusion show, Leader fused soulful jazz, R&B, classical music and pop, anchored strongly throughout by the funky bass lines of magnetic bassist, Yolanda Charles. ‘Caruso’ is about the love that Italian operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso felt for his music. Here, the subtle decorativeness of Garcia’s acoustic Spanish guitar provided the perfect base for Leader to emotively communicate his own passion for music through the satiny tone and purring phrasing of his alto saxophone. This gave way to rocky drums and Bennett’s keyboard solo, which sadly broke the spellbinding atmosphere with its distorting loudness. A final upwards modulation into a renewed ecstasy elicited Leader’s signature trick: a sustained super-high note which duly impressed the near-capacity audience.

We all need to be reminded of the importance of love in our lives, but in introducing songs such as ‘Searching For Love’, Leader overstated his desire to ‘spread the love’ through his music: surely if played from the heart, music should simply speak for itself? The most moving part of the gig came when Leader and his mother, South African concert pianist, Lucille Leader, performed an acoustic piano and saxophone duet of ‘Lavender Rose’; a lullaby written by Leader for his manager, Jacqui Taylor. This was followed by their powerful rendition of ‘Reminiscence’ nocturne by Chopin.

Unfortunately, the shrillness of the soprano saxophone melody on ‘For All We Know’ zapped the romance out of this tender jazz standard, which is more suited to the darker depths of Johnny Hartman’s vocal interpretation. It sounded too smooth, but contained some pleasing syncopation and chord substitutions. Paradoxically, the over-promotion of this gig gave it an edge of inauthenticity and it wasn’t until the encore; a sweltering hot ‘Soul Medley’, that the band really let go and the love flowed, earning them a standing ovation.

– Gemma Boyd