Friday saw another chance for me to visit the new Howard Assembly Room, this time to see a true jazz legend in concert. Not only that but also someone who will doubtless become a jazz legend in future.

Before I get on to my thoughts about the show I would like to give another mention to the venue. To illustrate its versatility, the seating for this performance was of the more formal kind with the main floor containing rows of seats rather than the cabaret style tables and chairs or the minimalist standing room only configuration with a few poseur tables. I really must commend those responsible for the way that this was done. Speaking as an elderly gentleman, just short of six-foot tall with arthritic knees – I really must stop flattering myself, no wonder I never get any swipes on dating apps – the rows of seats were spaced widely enough for me to cross my legs or straighten them out when the pain dictated I do so. As an indication of this, it was possible to remain seated whilst other concert-goers passed along the row. Thank you.

To business. I have liked modern jazz since I was a kid when, at the age of 9, I heard Take 5 by Dave Brubeck, a piece which spawned a coffee house of the same name in Vicar Lane. I then developed a taste for Jacques Loussier and the James Taylor – no, not that one – Quartet. My only disappointment was when I went to see Ronnie Scott at Wakefield which I found to be a bit beyond my musical comprehension. Thankfully that was not the case this evening with Mr Pine giving a performance which, although challenging in parts was very accessible to casual listeners like myself.

The first thing which struck me when Mr Pine walked on stage was his instrument – behave! – it was a bass clarinet. For the non-musicians like myself, it looks like a saxophone which has been on a diet. The sound emanating from it though is incredible, especially in the hands of such a master of his art. Sounds range from those you would associate with a regular clarinet through to a bass note which I am sure loosened a couple of my fillings. He would keep throwing in one of these low notes during an otherwise melodious passage which I must say I did find a little irritating but again, it is probably my lack of technical knowledge which is to blame rather than his playing. This technique did work, however, when used in some of the less serious pieces.

As the title of the show suggests, the music was made up of well known ballads and his riffs were very much in keeping with the material. I do a grave disservice to Ms Rahman here as she was given ample opportunity to show her inventiveness and versatility as well. Her piano skills were amazing, and so diverse, turning the soft ballad Windmills of Your Mind into a crescendo which would have done justice to Beethoven or Rachmaninov.

There was a charming rapport between the two artists and Courtney Pine was very generous with the amount of time he stood aside to let Zoe Rahman contribute her skill and interpretations to the pieces.

The tone for the evening was set by the first number, Smile, the Charlie Chaplin classic. Courtney Pine has a natural twinkle in his eye and the set proved to be full of mischief, both musically and in his conversation between the pieces. The improvisations on the tune we have come to know and love, although starting out ‘straight’ turned into outright comedy at the end meaning that there were more laughs than smiles from the audience. During a later piece he managed to throw in a few bars of the theme tunes of both The Banana Bunch and The Magic Roundabout.

In his chats with the audience he said how much he liked Leeds. At first I though that this was the stock phrase to elicit a round of applause but it turns out that his daughter studied at Leeds University so he knows the city well, and is probably well aware that we don’t take kindly to BS. He also stated a couple of facts which had by that time become blatantly obvious, he loves jazz, and also loves melodies..

I must say that I enjoyed the performance very much, Zoe Rahman was a revelation and Courtney Pine lived up to, and even surpassed my expectations. He ended the night by saying that he only plays the last number when he has enjoyed himself and went on to give a totally unembroidered rendition of Amazing Grace which had at least one audience member close to tears. I will remember the evening for a very long time – hopefully!

All images provided by Opera North

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