Classical: Bass, the final frontier

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WILLARD WHITE QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL LONDON

PAUL ROBESON acted and sung his way into the hearts of millions, highlighted racism in the United States and injustices elsewhere, was disparaged by white bigots for speaking his mind and condemned by younger blacks for not being radical enough.

The man's legacy survives in films that are hardly shown and recordings that bypass those who struggle to accept that one of the century's greatest bass singers favoured spirituals and simple songs of the people above grand operatic arias.

His views on civil rights, however, remain a powerful force almost 23 years after his death, preserved in essays, speeches and autobiographical writings that underline the dignity and eloquence of his calls for racial equality, religious tolerance and social inclusion across the social spectrum.

The Robeson voice was revived as part of the London Jazz Festival, with the broadcaster, Trevor Phillips, unlocking the passion behind the great campaigner's words, and Willard White surveying the range of songs in his repertoire. The package earned a standing ovation, richly deserved if intended to honour Robeson's memory and spirit, less so if devoted to this performance, the first half of which suffered from the lack of White's emotional and vocal commitment.

The opening spiritual, Witness, was strangely muted; likewise, Ellington's Mood Indigo fell into that grey area between subtlety and indifference. Henry Lowther's occasional trumpet solos, tight, idiomatic playing from the Matrix Ensemble, reminded the audience of the concert's jazz connections.

Things changed for the better in the evening's second part when White proved more in tune with the Robeson spirit, indeed, more in tune with himself. All God's Chillun Got Wings was straight from the heart.

As protest songs go, Oh, no John! packs a limp-wristed punch. White, like Robeson, used it to expose the links between traditional songs of black Americans and those preserved in the community songbooks of middle- class, white Anglo-Saxons.

The Jamaican bass-baritone was at his best, however, in songs with a genuine social edge, drawing tears from this reviewer with Joe Hill and Scandalize My Name. Vocal refinement and artistry were certainly not wanting in his account of Ol' Man River, with White stamping his mark on Robeson's signature tune and leaving his audience calling for more.

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