The well sprung dance floor of the Islington Assembly Hall used to attract dancers when bluebeat was around in the early-1960s to the Upper Street venue. Teenagers from the area and further out in Tottenham, and as far afield as Wood Green would come down to dance the night away to bands from the Caribbean.
Fifty years later Courtney Pine was in the hall last night on a classically drizzling yet warm London evening for a hometown gig to launch House of Legends, released earlier in the week on his own label Destin-e records, with a strong north and east London contingent present as his shouts outs to the different sections of the hall later confirmed.
House of Legends is very different to its predecessor Europa when Pine, a continuing inspiration for jazz in this country and beyond, continued his explorations as part of his new period bass clarinet phase having made a shift in his overriding musical conception firstly heard on Transition in Tradition and his meditations on the music of Sidney Bechet.
In some ways the new album is a return to the Caribbean, 50 years since the independence of Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, but it’s also about Britain itself and ongoing important political concerns because the legends as Courtney explained include the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, a recognition of the contribution of cultural pioneer Claudia Jones who founded the Notting Hill Carnival, as well as the recollection of a historic figure such as Samuel Sharpe who led the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 in Jamaica.
With Courtney’s sisters in the audience, and his wife also present, the gig was a family affair, the audience the extended family if you like: it had that friendly, approachable and comfortable feel to it, with Pine the affable host.
The band’s approach followed a subtly different path to earlier albums such as the more reggae-inflected Closer To Home, mainly because of the presence of French Martinique pianist Mario Canonge, who had a dominant role in the ensemble, his zouk style a fresh and stimulating element. It was a bit like adding in some cinnamon in cooking up a fine dish as Pine mentioned in a different context in one of his asides to the audience, although the band, with Darren Taylor playing in his customarily forthright manner on stand-up bass and Cameron Pierre fresh from his Radio Jumbo opening set, had some deep Courtney Pine Group road experience to draw on.
Early highlights of Courtney’s own set were ‘Redemption Song’, which in the past Courtney has delivered as an encore, and steel pan player Samuel Dubois, who appeared on Courtney’s definitive large ensemble album Afropeans recorded live at the Barbican, made his presence felt, his gently lilting Caribbean swing beautifully weighted. From the album itself ‘From The Father To the Son’ was a definite standout.
Courtney, wearing a Jamaican football shirt with the number 7 and words ‘Pine’, and ‘Jah’ emblazoned on it played soprano saxophone and later EWI against closely miked piano, guitar low in the mix, carefully weighted and supportive drumming from Robert Fordjour and beacon beats throughout from a beaming Taylor who came into his own on the “sci-fi” section near the end when there was lots of treated EWI, the floaty wind sounds strafing the ceiling of the old 1930s hall like a sonic comet.
The hall’s bouncy floor got a good opportunity to show what it was capable of later in the evening that had shortly before seen Courtney tutoring the main body of the crowd downstairs to jump together in unison, complete with crashing chords and laughter all round.
More seriously Courtney made a call for unity in society through the power of music, and to any “pharaohs of industry” present to give the youth of the country a chance, mentioning an old African saying: “If you exclude the young from building the village they will burn it.”
Courtney’s stalwart and highly likeable guitarist Cameron Pierre opened the evening after a short welcome from Pine with his Radio Jumbo band featuring French Martinique pianist Mario Canonge who played quite superbly with the Wes-inspired Pierre and later Pine. Bassist Michael Bailey, the sterling percussion from super steady Donald Gamble, and drums from Wesley Joseph completed Cameron’s compadres in an ideal warm-up to the main event.