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Orphy Robinson’s Astral Weeks, London Jazz Festival 2018 review - reimagining a masterpiece | reviews, news & interviews

Orphy Robinson’s Astral Weeks, London Jazz Festival 2018 review - reimagining a masterpiece

Orphy Robinson’s Astral Weeks, London Jazz Festival 2018 review - reimagining a masterpiece

A 50th anniversary salute ranges from the heartbreakingly beautiful to the revelatory

Celebrating the uniqueness of a Sixties classic: Orphy RobinsonRoger Thomas

After failing to make the charts on its release 50 years ago this month, Astral Weeks has long since passed into pop mythology, its unique amalgam of jazz, folk and soul influences inspiring musicians, writers and filmmakers alike.

Martin Scorsese said that he based the first 15 minutes of Taxi Driver on the album, Rickie Lee Jones has called it “still daring, still innovative”, Bruce Springsteen, who chose “Madame George” when he was a guest on Desert Island Discs, stated that the album “made me trust in beauty, it gave me a sense of the divine”, while in the 1979 anthology Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, Lester Bangs noted “a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work”.

McFarlane’s takes on “Sweet Thing” and “Ballerina” were both heartbreakingly beautiful

For the leading UK vibes player, multi-instrumentalist, improviser and 2017 Jazz FM "Live Experience of the Year" Award winner, Orphy Robinson, the fact that the original line-up for Astral Weeks included a number of acclaimed jazz musicians – bassist Richard Davis, whose stellar discography included Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure and a host of other classic Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse! releases, the versatile guitarist Jay Berliner, long-standing Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay, and vibist and Composers Workshop Ensemble co-founder Warren Smith Jr. – must have exerted a powerful pull when it came to reimagining the album.

Robinson, who as well as playing vibes also seamlessly incorporated the singular timbres of the cajón and the melodica into his expanded instrumental palette, took the musical freedom at the heart of Astral Weeks as a springboard for his imagination. Bringing together a host of the UK’s top musicians and vocalists to pay homage to the magic created in NYC’s Century Sound Studios half a century ago – vocalists Joe Cang, Sahra Gure, Zara McFarlane and Sarah Jane Morris, guitarists Tony Remy and Mo Nazam, pianist Justina Curtis, cellist Kate Shortt, flautist Rowland Sutherland, bassist Dudley Phillips and drummer Katie Patterson – Robinson illustrated how Morrison’s poetic stories remain perpetually fresh and open to different interpretative approaches.

As soon as Cang and Gure stepped inside the harmonic stasis of the title track, hypnotically exchanging phrases in the first of several extended codas, you felt the entire audience in the Queen Elizabeth Hall light up in response.

McFarlane’s takes on “Sweet Thing” and “Ballerina” – the latter featuring a brilliantly inventive duet section between Sutherland and Remy – were both heartbreakingly beautiful, while Morris channelled the blues, Tom Waits, Janis Joplin and more in revelatory accounts of “Cyprus Avenue” and a drummer-less “Madame George”, drawing out great dynamic waves of sound that propelled the music forward in irresistible surges.

Gure brought a moving radiance to “The Way Young Lovers Do”, which featured a blistering solo from Robinson, and, following a scene-setting introduction by Remy and Nazam, Cang’s bittersweet “Slim Slow Slider” exuded an elegiac insight. 

A trio of additional Morrison songs offered unforeseen treats, with McFarlane dusting down a crowd-pleasing "Moondance", at the end of which Robinson orchestrated a miraculous fade, Cang delivering a heartfelt "Crazy Love", then a final uplifting blast of "Jackie Wilson Said", with musicians and singers parading off stage to the strains of its chorus riff sung a cappella


Robinson illustrated how Morrison’s poetic stories remain perpetually fresh and open to different interpretative approaches


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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