JAZZ: Courtney and his dancing bear

Courtney Pine Jazz Cafe, London
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The Independent Culture
It's nearing midnight on Christmas Eve and Pine is insisting that, at the precise count of four, the audience must jump up in the air in a sort of Yuletide pogo. Sadly, most of us aren't up to such high jinks any more and the routine goes on and o n, rather like a seedy Eastern European dancing bear act when the bear is long past its prime. Pine, however, remains the ringmaster supreme. When he at last lets us off the hook, and consents to play the interminably withheld theme - "The Sidewinder", a hoaryold soul-jazz stand-by - that he has titillated us with for so long, is he, then, content with a conventional musical version? Oh no he isn't! It's only a minute before he hares off into the crowd and pushes through the crush of bodies, radio-mike d saxheld high as he covers the bar, the cloakrooms and possibly even the loos before he ends the promenade and returns to the stage in triumph.

And the faces of the crowd as he flashes past! They grin and gleam with delight and there's real love and admiration etched into the alcohol-flushed flesh. It's as if Lenny Henry could play the saxophone, or Frank Bruno talk, for Courtney Pine is as showbiz as Max Bygraves at a Royal Command Performance, and then some. What a pity that he occasionally has to spoil it all by playing jazz. As a footballer or a comedian he would be the toast of the nation, but as a jazz musician - even one as populist as he has become - the uneasy feeling always persists that he might at any time go into a long circular-breathing solo and leave us talking to ourselves or being forced back to the bar in search of an uncomplicated good time. It's not tha t Pine can't play as well as he can show off - he's such a good sax player that even on a fairly uninspired theme he continues to amaze with the forcefulness of his tone and the unerring grace of his technique. But rather that, to be a critical Scrooge, the two arts he is master of - crowd-pleaser and serious musician - would sometimes be better employed in separate but equal contexts.

The promise of a performance by Pine with his reggae band - as this was - is not to be sneezed at. It's a turn he's been practising for a long time and he does it extremely well, covering the material from his excellent Closer to Home reggae album of some years ago as well as a few funk classics and the odd new tune. The quartet hit the right groove and Pine's tenor or soprano floats over the top with a jaunty, insouciant air that dares you not to have a good time. It's accompanied by some clever stage moves and old-school soul-man shenanigans, like getting "all the ladies in the house" to echo each phrase of his sax until they become quite beautifully adept at imitating the increasingly complex lines, and he then hits them with an impossibly fast sequence of notes that breaks the whole audience up into gales of laughter.

In his between-songs chats and general front-man demeanour, Pine is a real star; correct without being smarmy, cheeky without being smart-ass, and he looks a million dollars with his new, slimmer physique and slightly grown-out crop. But he murders Marley's "Redemption Song", insists on his under-par band soloing like maestros and, yes, subjects us to that long circular-breathing solo re-jigged as a circus act. You end up in a quandary, loving him to death while occasionally wishing him dead at the sametime. But you can't bear the grudge for long; tearing around the club, tootling on his new sax like Pan with his pipes, raising smiles and merriment as he goes, Courtney Pine is a marvel. Good taste may come in the fullness of time.