Tuesday, July 15, 2014

WWDBD? goes to Montreux: Laura Mvula/Jamie Cullum

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival © 2014 Georges Braunschweig for GM Press

And so, What Would David Bowie Do? takes its final stroll along Quai Edouard-Jaccoud for the final show of its glorious week at the Montreux Jazz Festival and the first to, like, involve jazz. Well, sort of jazz. OK, who really cares what it is. Claude Nobs wouldn't.

Although he created this musical jamboree with "jazz" in its name, the festival has never made itself a slave to category. Genres have sat alongside sub-genres, and categories have intermingled and then been tossed about in the festival's musical stir fry to glorious effect.

In seven days on the Swiss Riviera this year, WWDBD? heard pop-tinged folk (or folk-tinged pop, your choice), countrifed rap, Southern blues, gospel-style, Chicago blues, Moroccan style, Led Zeppelin riffs played on West African violins, melancholy R&B and a wigged-out melange of reggae, dub and trip-hop. Oh, and a 15-year-old humiliating anyone who ever thought they could play the guitar.

All this, I know, is the sort of eclecticism you find at any summer festival, but at Montreux such diverse genres get the space to breathe, the audience's listening appreciation, and the utter professional respect of heavyweight peers. It's like a three week-long edition of Jools Holland's Later..., but with better scenery, obviously.

Perhaps the reason I like Montreux - and, indeed, Holland's show - is its editorial construct. Every night, and each performance across the three main venues, feels like feature pages from an ingeniously well edited music magazine. Of course, the acts are there to sell records, but beyond the obvious entertainment factor, you also get a sense of being informed and enriched with new musical knowledge.

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival
© 2014 Georges Braunschweig for GM Press
That sounds a tad pretentious, but let's take the first act of this evening's sort-of-jazz double-bill, Laura Mvula.

A Twitter version of her career story would skimp on details - "classically-trained former receptionist delivers debut album Sing To The Moon and becomes the next big thing" - but that is essentially her journey.

But what such a resume would fail to detail is why Mvula has been feted so, and why in 2013, her breakout year, the 28-year-old wasn't so much showered in awards as had the equivalent of Dolphin Bathrooms' entire stock of fixtures and fittings dumped on her.

On paper we've been there before - and, yes, I am obliged to mention Amy Winehouse, Adele, Corinne Bailey Rae, Joss Stone and even Mica Parris in the long list of British female singers who have taken soul, jazz, nu-soul, nu-jazz, or whatever Radio 2 producers are branding it at the time, and added the influences of Billy Holiday, Nina Simone or Ella Fitzgerald.

But with Mvula there is something different, distinct and decidedly refreshing. The first sign is evident before she has even set foot on the stage of the Auditorium Stravinski: a harp. In time, it's owner, Iona Thomas, will take her place behind it, along with an ensemble including Mvula's sister Dionne on violin and vocals and her brother James on cello and vocals, and Winehouse-veteran musical director and drummer Troy Miller.

Instantly her "chamber orchestra", as she calls them, are in action, with Like The Morning Dew opening the show as it does the album. Immediately the audience is charmed by its spectral blend of strings, close harmonies, military drumming and the variety of shades to Mvula's own voice, including her Fitzgerald-like phrasing.

She is, she says, humbled to be playing at such an "iconic" festival, but this is just the kind of show that Montreux regulars love. As she rattles through her set - the confessional Let Me Fall, the uplifting ballad Sing To The Moon and its tale of unrequited teenage love, and She, with its soulful buildup to a grooving crescendo you'd have to be, frankly, dead not to move to - the audience warms like local gruyere softening up for fondue. Smiles that may have been of the barely-there, quizzical kind at the beginning, are now at their broadest.

Is There Anybody Out There? has a cinematic breadth to it that surely puts Mvula in contention for a Bond theme, if not an entire film soundtrack, with its Disney-esque soundscape generated by Thomas's harp and the Douglas siblings on strings and backing vocals, and Miller's pounding drums thundering away.

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival © 2014 FFJM - Lionel Flusin

In a word, Mvula and her band are simply enchanting. That's not a word I've ever previously used in a live review, and given the propensity for acts I normally see, unlikely to be used much in the future. But it really is the only word I can think of that fits. There is a pleasing understatement to Mvula's stage persona (she says she was once crippled by stage fright), genuine and clearly not taking anything for granted.

And if the evening had ended right there and then with the last number, a blissful cover of Michael Jackson's Human Nature, I would have gone home satisfied of my money's worth. But this was only half time.

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival
© 2014 FFJM - Lionel Flusin
If Mvula's performing career was threatened before it had even taken off by stage fright, I wouldn't expect Jamie Cullum to be even capable of pronouncing the condition.

At 34 he is something of a veteran, having first caught the attention with an appearance on Michael Parkinson's British chat show which led to his third album, Twentysomething, being made for a major label, which in turn became one of the biggest selling British jazz records of all time.

Except, it wasn't. It may have had standards on it like Singin' In The Rain and What A Difference A Day Makes, and may have inevitably led to Cullum being branded the latest "new" Sinatra, but its crossover credentials included covers of Jimi Hendrix's Wind Cries Mary and Jeff Buckley's Lover, You Should Have Come Over.

Such apparent brazenness, challenging the jazz snobs and the anti-MOR brigade in equal measure, has remained his schtick ever since. And as this show in Montreux demonstrated without question, jazz really is only the part of it.

Bouncing onto the stage like a Springer Spaniel let off the leash in a city park, Cullum is everywhere all at once, hitting things, playing things, jumping onto and off things, more circus performer than musician. Quickly acknowledging that he might be a tad overdressed for the gig in jacket, shirt and tie, he is quickly stripped down to a plain blue t-shirt as he hammers out The Same Things (opening track of his latest album, Momentum) on grand piano that will become his main prop for the night, along with a remarkably versatile band in which the keyboard player also plays sax, and the guitarist also plays trumpet. Or possibly the other way round.

Much has been made of Cullum's height (he is 5ft 5in), not least because he married model Sophie Dahl (6ft), and his tousled hair, prompting a predictable line of "jazz hobbit" and "pixie of jazz" comments. To get the (non-)issue out of the way at the earliest opportunity, Cullum applies his well-trodden self-depreciation, noting how perspirationally tearing around the stage is the basis of a [fictional] forthcoming fitness video, plus plans to launch a new brand of hair product. His comic timing is impeccable, but then timing is a hallmark of musical talent in such bountiful supply.

But back to the music: faithful to his album cover version of it, The Wind Cries Mary soon swings its way into the set, as inventive in its live interpretation as it was 12 years ago on Twentysomething. Next, a trio of songs in tribute to Claude Nobs, including a moodily paired down cover of The Beatles' Blackbird, another track, Save Your Soul, from the last album, then a medley that includes Cullum inventively using the grand piano as a percussive instrument, along with inserting snippets of Snoop Dogg's Pump It Like It's Hard, Pharrell's Happy and his own debut single, Frontin'.

© Simon Poulter 2014
Far from being a jazz show, with a lot of appreciative head nodding, Cullum's show is more like an old soul review, powering through the crowd pleasers with barely time to breath, reaching an encore with When I Get Famous and Twentysomething, as well as another cheeky cover, of Rihanna's Don't Stop The Music.  It's exhilarating stuff.

After a brief break to find the towel that, presumably by a roadie's omission had eluded him earlier when ravines of sweat were pouring off his cheekbones, Cullum is back out on his own, picking out an improvised tribute to Montreux on the piano, before All At SeaSingin' In The Rain and Rihanna's Umbrella add monstrous irony to a week on the Swiss Riviera in which it has, pretty much, pissed down solidly.

Not that I mind. I always come away from Montreux feeling musically nourished. Switzerland is renowned for its provision of wellbeing, typified by the spa hotel I was billeted to, wherein the lake view and a giant swimming pool provided plenty of restorative benefit (though having the colonic irrigation department on my floor presented something of a hazard when returning from an evening's beverage consumption...).

I did see the sun briefly over the first couple of days, before the clouds closed in and took the town dangerously close to the Glastonbury experience (albeit with paved roads and working drainage), but I didn't mind one bit. Because evenings like this one, where the music feeds the soul, are what will bring me back to the Montreux Jazz Festival again and again and again and again.

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