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Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman

Howard Assembly Room, Leeds
Wednesday 4 May 2016

Fifteen minutes before tonight's concert I settled into my seat in the front row stalls of the Howard Assembly Room, fiddling with my camera and adjusting the settings to suit, when a middle-aged woman sat down beside me and immediately engaged me in conversation. She folded her walking stick and placed it upon her lap, then turned to me and began to tell me the story of her life, which I found very comforting. Could it be that modern jazz fans just happen to be generally friendly and talkative, or does the special ambience of the Howard Assembly Room just bring out the best in people? Perhaps this lady just happens to be a nice person. Once I was pretty much up to speed with her life, we pondered over what tonight's concert would bring. It was immediately apparent to us both that the programme was going to be quite sparse judging by the stage set. There was just a shiny black Steinway grand piano to the left of the stage, a single microphone stand to the right and an adjustable piano stool in the centre with a square clock leaning against the foot of a music stand beside it.

There are several ways that an artist can successfully entice an audience to be on their side from the outset and tonight Courtney Pine managed to do something that was just right. Once the house lights faded and eight footlights filled the familiar wooden backdrop with colour, Zoe Rahman emerged from the right hand side of the stage followed by the London-born saxophonist, who paused right in front of my neighbour, bent down before her and took her hand, squeezed it gently and thanked her for coming along to the show; an act of warmth and humility that could not possibly have been lost on the Leeds audience tonight.

Courtney Pine, dressed from head to foot in black, save for the crimson cuffs on his tunic and the orange swirling motifs on his slippers, a yin and yang symbol on each foot, presented a selection of ballads from his recent collaborative release with the brilliant pianist Zoe Rahman, SONG (THE BALLAD BOOK). Putting aside his familiar array of instruments from the saxophone family, the musician chose instead for this project the bass clarinet, whilst his collaborator traversed the keys of her own instrument of choice. Seated at first, with his instrument touching the stage floor, the musician explored every part of the bass clarinet, from the multi-octave range of notes, the idiosyncratic reed technique, the rattle of the keys to the breathy percussive non-notes, not to mention the circular breathing patterns that left not only the musician but the audience momentarily breathless.

Zoe watched intently, her eyes rotating between the keys, the sheet music in front of her and her collaborator a few feet away, an occasional smile exchanged throughout the performance. Familiar songs were treated to unfamiliar arrangements such as Sam Rivers' Beatrice, the traditional Amazing Grace and Michel Legrand's Windmills of Your Mind, each arrangement providing plenty of space for improvisation from both musicians. The full range of musical expression was explored from the deepest foghorn-like timbre of the bass clarinet to the bird-like high pitched squeal, ideal for the imitation of the Nightingale busily singing in Berkeley Square, a possible homage to Pine's London home through the popular wartime song composed by Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin, which opened the second set.

During the two sets, Courtney Pine occasionally addressed the audience with the sort of warmth and humility we have come to expect from this musician. After the opening piece he introduced himself and the fact that he loves Jazz. He went on to inform the audience that his daughter wants to go to university and that "of all the places on the planet, she chose Leeds Uni." He introduced Zoe as "a master of the eighty-eight keys" and jokingly apologised for running over by ten minutes in the first set. During the penultimate number, Courtney treated the audience to an improvised medley that included snippets from Dvořák's New World Symphony, Bowie's Rebel Rebel, Glenn Miller's Little Brown Jug and even a spot of Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again Naturally, each linked with some fine Coltrane-standard improvisations. Finishing with Thad Jones' A Child is Born, which not only featured some superlative improvisational clarinet runs, but also some of Zoe's most expressive piano playing, the two musicians left the stage, Courtney still playing until the stage door closed behind him. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky