JAZZ / I got dem Royal Festival Hall location blues

Click to follow
LAST MARCH, at the Dominion, Rickie Lee Jones gave the best concert of the year. Last week at the Royal Festival Hall she gave the second best. There were many differences between the two events, because Rickie Lee Jones is not the kind of performer who traipses around the world dealing the same hand every night. She makes sure that if you're devoted enough to go and see her twice, you get twice the value.

Leading her flexible five-piece band, she seemed looser and more relaxed, which took the fine (and, at the Dominion, sometimes desperate) edge of perfection off the evening but lent it a more generous quality. 'Rodeo Girls' and 'Magazine' were some of the songs she hadn't done at the previous concert; 'Company' and 'Weasel and the White Boys' Cool' were among the previous triumphs revisited and renewed, thanks partly to a new percussionist, Efrain Toro, who exchanged a more emphatic funkiness for the airy shading favoured by his predecessor, Ed Mann. Sal Bernardi, Jones's devoted sidekick, picked up his accordion to embellish the charming 'Hi Lili, Hi Lo'. And when she sang 'We Belong Together' alone at the piano, with that sudden line about 'watching heartbeats go by', I found myself wishing she'd never go home again.

No, the reason this concert was the second best had nothing to do with her own performance. It was entirely a result of the continuing insistence of JVC and Capital Radio on holding their annual Jazz Parade on the South Bank, in an auditorium whose defects reduce even the most ardent defenders of poured-concrete brutalism to an embarrassed silence.

Just supposing you wanted to kill jazz. What might you do to bring this about? Well, you might put it on display in a hall miles from any of the music's normal habitats, a hall in which amplified sound echoes off the dry surfaces until all timbre and separation are lost, in which attendants are paid to keep latecomers outside until breaks in the performance. You might, in short, put it in a museum.

Thank goodness people like JVC and Capital Radio are interested in sponsoring jazz. They have other things they could do with their marketing budgets. But jazz is already in difficulties sorting out its attitudes to post- modernism, and to put it in a museum reduces it to the status of an exhibit. The thing about jazz is that it happens in front of your eyes. But the one thing you know when you go to a jazz concert at the Festival Hall is that nothing is going to happen. You might see a performance of jazz, but you won't see jazz itself. That happened at some other time, in some other place.

Take last week's New Orleans Gala, a package centred on Dr John, the terrific pianist and singer who carries most of the Crescent City's rich musical heritage around underneath his black beret. A half-full house did its best to show willing, but you had to search hard for the qualities that made the evening more than a charade.

Mostly they were supplied by Eddie Bo, a veteran singer-pianist who played his own songs with a true New Orleans rhythm and blues accent, by Willy DeVille, the tall white R&B singer in a blaring red satin suit whose connection with New Orleans was not immediately obvious, and by Dr John himself, whose four-song set almost succeeded in summarising his entire illustrious career. He began with 'Iko Iko', the classic transmutation of a children's skipping song into a funky dance tune which gave the Dixie Cups a hit in the mid- Sixties, when New Orleans voices were regularly to be heard in the pop charts. His rolling, blues-saturated piano-playing showed itself on 'My Buddy', an old-fashioned blues-ballad from a surprisingly lush album he released last year. The voodoo-driven 'Walk on Gilded Splinters' reminded us of the time, almost 25 years ago, when the session musician Mac Rebennack transformed himself into the mysterious Dr John the Night Tripper. Finally, Joe Liggins's old 'Goin' Back to New Orleans' was given a driving salsa beat, showing off the skill of his useful nine-piece band.

Elsewhere in the evening, the menu became a little too touristic. The Cajun singer Zachary Richard delivered a set of unremarkable rock-zydeco, and the Wild Magnolias - three legatees of a strange tradition in which black New Orleanians dress up for Mardi Gras in wildly exaggerated Red Indian costumes, all feathers and fake fur in the fluorescent colours of Teddy boys' socks - jumped around to 'Shoo-fly' and 'Upside Your Head'. Weird enough on Bourbon Street, never mind in a temple of Western culture.

(Photograph omitted)