Bilal, Jazz Café, London


There's a definite sense of anticipation ahead of 25-year-old Bilal's first UK gig in three years (part of the Jazz Café's festival celebrating Philadelphia's avant-soul scene).

There's a definite sense of anticipation ahead of 25-year-old Bilal's first UK gig in three years (part of the Jazz Café's festival celebrating Philadelphia's avant-soul scene). This is largely because all the indicators suggest Bilal is a genuine prodigy: he has produced, written and performed with the leading luminaries of the "city of brotherly love", including Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Joss Stone's sometime drummer Ahmir Questlove Thompson (of The Roots), and the conscious rappers Common and Mos Def.

But, soul pedigree aside, and this is where it gets interesting, Bilal has formally studied music - jazz and its associated forms, big band, swing and trad, as well as classical and opera - at New York's Mannes College of Music, where he was tutored by Reggie Workman, one-time bass player with John Coltrane.

Tonight nobody knows what to expect, as it's three years since his remarkable debut LP, 1st Born Second, which somehow pulled these myriad influences together into an utterly individual calling card.

Bilal sidles on stage wearing a hat that looks like a 1970s lampshade and which casts a shadow over his eyes. He's also sporting shades. An unbuttoned suit jacket reveals a bare chest save for a necklace of beads - Bilal's going for the boho chic look, and he pulls it off. The band - keyboard, drums, bass, percussion and two backing singers - launch into Bilal's best-known and most radio-friendly single, the Dr Dre-produced "Fast Lane". Live it's devoid of the super-producer's trademark warm squelchy bassline, becoming a drawn-out freestyle showcase for Bilal's octave-leaping as he recounts the highs, lows and ultimate anguish of living fast and dying young. It feels more honest than the LP version. "Sometimes" is longer live than the seven-minute album version. Instrumentally, it's a low-key ambling funk work-out, vocally it's spectacular ("I wish I was drug-free sometimes/ I wish I saw the exit sign first sometimes"). The song is embellished with Bilal's hyper-active but in-tune whispers, squeals, wails and shrieks.

Lighting a cigarette and gulping down some wine, Bilal disappears from the stage. Heads crane and necks arch to see where he's gone. He performs from offstage, then hops onto the piano for a couple of scatty jazz numbers. He's in his own world, and has yet to make eye contact, his face contorting as if he's experiencing each emotion he's expressing. Some might call it histrionics, but it's refreshing to be drawn into a performance with feeling and real drama.

He sits cross-legged and sings, then lies down and continues - Bilal's showing off. We're treated to a bluesy, heartbreak lament, "When Will You Call", before a tumultuous encore with "Soul Sista". Bilal launches into another song, then another, and the gig's run way over time, but he's oblivous. Bilal does things his way.

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