For the Big LJF Friday Night Out, the always magical Dean Street Pizza Express Jazz Club played host to two contrasting artists on Friday 18th, each with direct historic lines to an earlier tradition steeped in jazz. Two houses, two audiences, two composing bandleaders with two firebrand trios. I was more than happy to be in both shows.
First up, the early set featured James Morton's Porkchop, a Soho-perfect outfit, echoing grooves from the early to mid sixties swinging Brit sounds of Zoot Money and Georgie Fame, to King Pleasure and, later, David Sanborn, The Average White Band, and The Crusaders. The affable, Bristol-born James Morton has clearly (along with the band), served a fun apprenticeship with James Brown mainman and Feel Gooder, Pee Wee Ellis. From the opening "Shuffle" from a forthcoming new CD, Morton and his band drilled an enthusiastic capacity crowd with funky fayre, driven by the loosest-wristed drummer in town, the superb Guido May, and Dan Moore's excellent hammond pads and solos on the Nord C1. Denny Ilett's guitar on his own "Gospel One" was muscular and dextrous, recalling the rock steady "People Get Ready". During "The Hump", even the garlic bread was dancing to Morton's vivid, loopy figures, defying all diaphragmatic possibilities.
If I was reminded of the rhythm section on Randy Crawford's "Raw Silk", as funky four gave way to searing 6/8 feels, then by the time Lizzie Deane joined the band for a "Natural Woman", the spirit of Joplin was in the room, and the Pee Wee tune, "Cold Sweat", written for Brown in 1968, fairly raised the roof.
James Morton is a true entertainer, but with an almost Cannonball fluidity, and if his warm, engaging link to his audience and showmanship may addle some purists, there's zilcho empty saxman posturing here, just great soulful playing . . . and a thrilling raise-the-roof upper register. The encore, a beautiful ballad, "Forgiven", was inspired by a meeting with his sister, and featured another storming solo from guitarist, Ilett. A standing ovation spoke volumes. Look out for the, as yet, untitled new album, which features an augmented brass section.
Self-confessed Brummy of Jamaican parentage, the crystal-clear soul-jazz voice of the Atlanta-based singer and composer, Julie Dexter, with a trio consisting of pianist and keyboard player, Nick Ramm, electric bassist, Neville Malcolm, and the profoundly brilliant drummer, Rod Youngs, held the late-show crowd in the palm of her hand .Expressive and gospelly, yet impossible to categorise, she holds a firm and independent role that sits somewhere in the vicinity of a Jill Scott (who is a friend), Angie Stone and the Afro beat jazziness of Dianne Reeves, Dexter's powerful delivery was consummate, playful (she utilises staccato vowels and startlingly effective swoops and flourishes, within or without the text, to improvise) and hugely musical. "Like Ours" from the CD "Conscience" was a lesson to all singers in delivering a total and sheer belief in the simplest, yet most spiritual of lyric.
Her relationship with her excellent trio was an inspiration and sets her firmly apart from most vocalists. Family, friends and looking for the good spirit in people imbues her stories and songs and her take on "Lucy In The Sky " started with an almost "Maiden Voyage" two-chord workout, placing a different slant on the all too familiar melody. In true Dexter style, she interrupted herself and the band (she plays a mean keyboard too) to show us a funkier take on it, her singing stepping further and further up the goosebump ladder. Her mum was in, holding Dexter's tiny new baby, the knowledge of which, brought the audience even closer to her honest appeal. I briefly spoke to her in the dressing room and she told me how she was doing a show at the legendary CBGBs twelve years ago, and was invited, on the basis of a demo recording, to perform in Atlanta. She remains a resident there. "If there's a group of people digging my music, then because of the geography of the fifty-odd states, there's always a new gig to explore. It's about getting my music out there". I asked her about the now, extremely fondly remembered, J Life, a band I used to regularly hear at The Jazz Cafe (Jason Yarde and Gary Crosby are also founder members) "Well, we did that one album and were thinking of a reunion. It's just a matter of getting calendars together".
Early in the set, Dexter deftly flicked a switch and delivered a beautifully succinct and swinging "The Nearness Of You" which felt like the happiest synthesis of her J Life experience, "learning how to sing in tune on standards and stuff". An almost funky "Quiet Nights And Quiet Stars" was a fantastic interplay between the soulful vocals and an eerie impressionistic piano landscape from Nick Ramm. "Happiness", she happily told us, was "my money song", telling us that our joyful applause "sounded like a money-clap to me". "Choices", another original, offset the steadiest groove from drummer, Youngs, with beautifully subtle bass lines and the lushest chords on keyboards, recalling early Rufus. A lovely reading of Marvin Gaye's anthemic "Inner City Blues" showed some astonishing melisma and a reggae re-fit, with the ever musical Dexter on the Roland. From the new CD, "New Again", we were left wanting SO much more from the excellent self -penned "Who I Am". Exit Julie Dexter, to sign CDs and cuddle her mum and baby, a strong, down to earth woman, with a savvy and granite resolve. Oh . . . and a voice that left me floored. And I ain't that easily floored. Fact.