The Arts Desk
REVIEW – Sandra Nkaké and Jî Drû, Pizza Express Jazz Club, ReVoice! Festival 2014 – “mesmerising, leonine”
A first live experience of the French-Cameroonian singer Sandra Nkaké leaves many questions unanswered. Once the immediate bewilderment has passed, the most pressing question for a British audience should be: why is this extraordinary performer not block-booking the festival circuit? In a single set, accompanied by flautist and controller of the electronics, Jî Drû, Nkaké gave a stunningly complete display, as voice, accompaniment, movement and stage presence combined to project her mesmerising, leonine charisma. For Georgia Mancio’s ReVoice Festival, it was an inspired booking.
There’s a touch of Grace Jones about Nkaké’s stage presence, and the steely penetration of her gaze hinted at Jones’ role as May Day in the mediocre Bond film A View to a Kill. As soon as she began to sing, however, it became clear that artistry on another plane entirely was taking place. Her tawny mohican already had a touch of mane about it, but her velvety, muscular purr, ominous when scarcely audible, spine-shredding at full power, clinched the feline atmosphere. Potent, sensual, suggestive, it’s an instrument of exquisite power, which was here set off to perfection by the musical arrangements.
Though she sometimes travels with a full band, this show, with Drû’s flute and keyboard-sampler and Nkaké adding occasional shakers, was perfectly judged for the occasion. The flute’s breathy tone matches that of Nkaké’s voice, while its register, generally higher than the singer’s, hints at a gender role-reversal. Drû’s sampler generally built up layers of both voice and flute, which span deliriously beneath the live sounds. It was by turns eerie, evoking a futuristic, even apocalyptic emptiness; but also organic, suggesting a thrusting, erotic pulse.
Her repertoire was, in name, quite conventional, though the identity of some songs took careful listening to establish. The Doors’ “Light My Fire” was the easiest to identify, its refrain circling hypnotically over the whirling sampler like a narcotic cloud. It wasn’t particularly subtle, and the gleeful demeanour of the performers suggested they knew as much, too, but it was irresistibly enjoyable. Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and Terry Callier’s “Dancing Girl” were both darker and more reflective, Drû’s rapid-tonguing rhythm and Nkaké’s skeletal, rattling shakers portraying a panicky, vulnerable mood. Françoise Hardy’s “Mon Amie La Rose”, their final song, was stylishly done as an acoustic duo, though as singers they suddenly felt naked, and almost a little bit ordinary, without their entrancing web of sampled spectacle.
Nkaké is billed as a combination of soul, jazz and pop, and for once, this breadth of categorisation was not merely a publicist’s vagueness. There’s undoubtedly the emotional authenticity of soul, the inventiveness of jazz, and the sheen and spectacle of pop, but the three worked together to spellbinding effect. It wasn’t just a musical triumph, however: Nkaké trained as an actress and spoke of the preparation of this “show” as a multi-dimensional performance. Theatricality and an engagingly self-aware humour contributed to a triumphant set that must, for British audiences, be one of the discoveries of the season. She’d go down a storm at Ronnie Scott’s.
Neither chalk nor cheese has any place in a performance of this standard, but they did suggest themselves when Georgia Mancio, singing a first set with pianist Tom Cawley, gave a debut of her and Cawley’s original work, which in its naturalism, psychological subtlety and domestic focus, was everything Nkaké’s wasn’t. There were a couple of perfectly-pitched covers, but perhaps of most interest were Mancio’s own lyrics, which, very unusually for jazz songs, take an interest in everyday life. This was summed up by the song “Gerry the Iceskater”, about an elderly neighbour and former professional skater now suffering incipient dementia. Mancio, whose control of phrasing has a precision few can match, explored this scenario with both drama and tenderness. Cawley is an expansive accompanist, offering plenty of colour and atmosphere, and this is clearly the beginning of a very productive partnership. From the giddiest spectacle to the most intimate human concern, this was a gig with everything to offer. A triumph of both programming and performance.